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George Washington Carver.

No distinguished American ever began his life under less promising circumstances. He was born to a slave woman on a farm near Diamond Grove, Missouri.

His year of birth remains uncertain, but is estimated to be 1864. He was named George after his father. Because George senior died (in a farm accident on a plantation several miles away) before his son was born, the child had no surname.

When he was but an infant, nightriders, who trafficked in the slave market, kidnapped little George and his mother. Farmer Carver, his owner, sought at length to recover Mary and her son. He did succeed in regaining the child in exchange for a $300 racehorse. Unfortunately, he was never able to find the mother.

At first, Herr Carver and his wife believed that their retrieved child, found next to a tree, soaking wet and shaking with cold, was not going to live. When it appeared that he would survive, they feared that the persistent, hacking cough that choked his breath would leave him permanently speechless.

George took hold of life and did not lose his ability to speak. When he was barely ten years of age, he experienced what he would later describe as his "conversion". "God came into my heart one afternoon," he tells us, "while I was alone in the loft of our big barn." He remembers kneeling down at the time by a barrel of corn, and praying the best he could. It was an experience that nourished his unwavering faith for the rest of his life.

George, who took the surname of Moses Carver who raised him, had to face difficulties other than his poverty, frail health, and orphaned status. Though he possessed an insatiable appetite for learning, he was often rebuffed because of his colour. One instructor refused to teach him because he was black. Highland University denied him admission for the same reason. He was finally accepted at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. The school was named after a Methodist bishop, Mathew Simpson, an Abolitionist and a lifetime friend of Abraham Lincoln. At Simpson he earned a bachelor's and a master's degree in agriculture.

His great ambition, even overriding his dreams as a scientist, was to train and equip young black men and women so that they could become a more vital part of the American work force. He began to realize this ambition when Booker T. Washington invited him to join the faculty at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. Carver stayed there for 47 years and bequeathed his life savings of $33,000 to the school.

At the time of his arrival, the Institute's agricultural department consisted of nothing more than a barn, a cow, and a few chickens. Ever resourceful and never discouraged, Carver instructed a small group of students on how to collect materials--pots, pans, tubes, wire, etc.--that could be used to construct laboratory equipment. "Throw nothing away. Everything can be used again!" These words were a virtual lifelong motto for the resourceful and ingenious George Washington Carver.

Carver persuaded southern farmers to diversify and rotate their crops by planting soil-enriching peanuts and sweet potatoes instead of soil-exhausting cotton. His next task was to discover marketable uses for the superabundance of these new crops that were littering the fields. Here is where his resourcefulness proved to be of virtuoso calibre. From the peanut he made cheese, milk, coffee, flour, shampoo, axle grease, pickles, ink, dyes, soap, wood stains, and insulating board, to name but a few of his 300 products. The peanut quickly became a $200 million-a-year industry that not only rejuvenated the cotton fields, but also produced substantial revenues. From the sweet potato came vinegar, molasses, starch, breakfast food, tapioca, mucilage, crystallized ginger, synthetic rubber, and 100 additional products.

Carver was showered with many honours. The Roosevelt Medal, which he received in 1939, bore the citation, "For distinguished service in the field of science, to a scientist humbly seeking the guidance of God and a liberator of men of the white race, as well as the black." These words are most fitting inasmuch as they underscore his faith in God and his service to mankind. Carver's resourcefulness was inseparable from his faith in God's Providence. God loves to hide his secrets; humans love to discover them. George Washington Carver was both a seeker and a finder.

At the time of his death, in 1943, eighteen schools were named in his honour. Carver himself would have deflected the attention to God, who had not forsaken, toward the end of the Civil War, a child who began his sojourn on earth orphaned, enslaved, destitute, abandoned, and sick. God's own resourcefulness will not be outdone. (+)

Donald DeMarco recently retired as professor of philosophy at St. Jerome's University, Waterloo, ON.
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Title Annotation:Biography
Author:DeMarco, Donald
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
Words:795
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