George Washington Carver, has been one of my all-time favorites from American History. This is a short story that I wrote, for partial fulfillment of a college class years ago. It deals with just one aspect of his amazing life.
NO GREENER PASTURES … THAN ALABAMA CLAY
“Come down and help us” – The words rang in his ears as he made his way to the edge of town. People bowed and smiled at the distinguished professor, but he walked on unseeing, his thoughts lost in the needs of Alabama.
When he reached his favorite spot by the stream, he sat down, and pulling the letter out of his pocket, he read it again.
“… the children, barefoot, come for miles over bad roads. They are thin and in rags. You would not understand such poverty. These people do not know how to plow or plant or harvest. I am not skilled at such things. I teach them how to read, to write, to make good shoes, good bricks, and how to build a wall. I cannot offer you money, position, or fame. The first two you have, the last, from the place you now occupy, you will not doubt achieve. These things I now ask you to give up! I offer you in its place work – hard, hard work – the task of bringing a people from degradation, poverty and waste to full manhood.“
He read the last paragraph several times, as his mind wandered back over the years past to the sight of a small, homeless, pickaninny trudging down the dusty road, toting his life’s sole possessions, one pair of shoes, and extra shirt and a shawl, his spelling book, a book on plants, and a small knife. Nothing else save one dollar in change wrapped in a rag and tied about his neck. He followed the small Negro boy as he padded from one big house to the next trying to get a job, so that he could attend the school for colored children. He watched as the boy spent many, many weeks sleeping in a farmer’s barn and being taunted by the other children for coming to school with hayseeds in his hair.
He watched as Mr. Martin discovered the sleeping boy in his barn; how Mr. Martin and his lovely wife “adopted” this starving, freed slave; how the small boy increased in stature, in favor with God and the neighborhood. He followed the boy through high school at Fort Scott. His saw him start his own laundry “business” at Wilder House to work his way through school. He watches as the skinny, bright-eyed boy was taken in by Aunt Lucy and Uncle Seymour. They had no children and as time passed their pride enveloped him. Where they went he went.
The circular sent out by Highland University offered the graduating boy a fine Presbyterian training in all the “Letters and the Arts.” He looked on as the boy filled out the application with trembling fingers, as he opened the reply, stating that he had been accepted with scholarship honors.
He shied with a pang of grief as he heard the Presidents verdict when he arrived on campus – “Sorry, there must have been some mistake! I do regret this young man, but there is no provision here for Negro students. So far as I know, you are the first to apply.”
Time belonged to God, so he wasted none there. He trekked westward, and near Beeler took up one hundred and sixty acres of “homestead.” He watched as, on this land the boy became a man; as he shook off the hurts and disappointments which had been so great; as he took on height and stature; as his mind and soul reached up and stretched forth wings, which in the years to come, no scorn or ridicule could ever clip. But even the solidity of domestic life could not keep him. This boy-now-man packed his things and headed for Winterset, Iowa, a place where ease and comforts were almost sinful.
Yes, George remembered, only seven short years ago this depraved rag-a-muffin, now grown up, had been invited to Simpson College to study Art. But he wanted to nurture life – not just copy life!
So, three years later he left Simpson, and entered Iowa State College at Ames. This great institution was already well known for its excellent Departments of Botany and Agricultural Chemistry.
He remembered how, just a year ago at graduation he had received his appointment on the faculty the very day he had received his diploma.
Now, here was this plea from Booker T. Washington. He read it again. “… You would not understand such poverty … I offer you had, hard work.” But this was a work for his own people, to give them a small bit of the opportunity he had received.
Then he pulled a small notebook from his pocket, tore out a sheet and scribbling three words, signed his name. On the way back to the campus he stopped at the post office. Here he bought a stamped envelope which he addressed to “Dr. Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee Institute, Alabama.” This finished, he returned to his laboratory and to work.
For several days Professor Carver said nothing about his leaving. He spent long hours explaining details to his assistants. He made sure that his notes and all his work were in perfect order.
The letter was received at Tuskegee with gratitude and joy, though it said simply, “I will come.” And was signed “G.W. Carver.”
At Ames one evening, as the experimental station’s director, Mr. Wilson, was leaving, George made his move. “May I see you a moment?”
A bit of gravity in George’s voice made Mr. Wilson stop sharply. He closed the door and came closer. George handed him Mr. Washington’s letter.
He read it through without pausing. When he had finished he searched George’s big, dark eyes and asked, “You’re leaving us, because your people are at Tuskegee?”
In a few words George explained what he had done to help with the changes in the laboratory, outlined suggestions and told his plans. To all this Wilson nodded sadly, “No one can take your place.”
The next day they went together to see the President of the University. He was disappointed to lose such a fine teacher. George was deeply touched by his pleas for him to stay on at Iowa State, but to no avail. George handed him Washington’s letter. He read it. There was a long silence in the room. Finally the president arose and said quietly, “In this life we are prone to turn our eyes away from true greatness, lest we be blinded. He asks you to give up money, position and fame, but in their place he offers immortality.”
As George arose to leave, the president shook his hand and added the benediction, “Go with God!” And George went out – with God.
That fall of 1896 as George surveyed the grounds at Tuskegee, he was appalled. He had never seen anything like it. There was yellow soil and red, and purple, and brown, and riveted and banded, and all sorts of things … except grass or plants. There were erosion gullies in which an ox could get lost!
As Washington watched this strange man and answered his searching questions, he was puzzled. What was he like? What was his background?
But George could not waste time talking about himself. He wanted to see the laboratory. To this Washington quickly relied, “We’ll go see the Agricultural Hall. It’s our newest building put up by our students and they are mighty proud of it.”
“But the laboratory,” George began. Washington motioned with his hand, “It has plenty of space.”
George looked at him a moment, “Oh, I see. You mean you’re giving me space and …”
“And God gave you the brains!” finished Washington.
“Well,” said George dryly, “I guess that together we ought to be able to manage a laboratory.” Then they both chuckled. The chuckle grew to laughter, and two great souls knit as one.
George had a job to do and nothing with which to do it. The school needed new life, and growing things. A whole impoverished state needed rebuilding. So he started in the classroom by changing the attitudes of the students toward farming.
“To him, who in the love of nature holds communion with her visible forms, she speaks a various language!” he admonished them.“Young people, I want to beg of you always keep your eyes and ears open to what Nature has to teach you. You will learn something new every day of your life.”
The word went out that this new teacher was “different.” Students that were sent to do “farming” decided to stay. Many joined his classes and found a new surprise every day.
One morning the new teacher closed his brief talk with a little poem that ended like this:
“Are you one of the flock that follows, or
Are you one who will lead the way?
Are you one of the timid souls that quail
At the jeers of a doubting crew,
Or dare you, whether you win or fail
Strike out for the goal that’s new?”
“Today,” he said, “We’re building our new laboratory!”
He showed them the pictures of crucibles, and beakers, of distilling and extracting apparatus, and all sorts of equipment. “These are the kinds of things we need. God knows our need and He will direct us.”
It was an exiting hunt. The crusade was on. From the backdoors of big houses they received old cooking utensils and lamps. They searched dumps and alleys for glass bottles of all kinds. They cut reeds from the swamps for pipettes. George praised every “find.”
What he could not use at once he set aside saying, “There is no waste, save time. All these things can be used again.” Thus spoke the first and greatest “chemurgest.”
He was given a twenty-acre lot of no-good land. The land was overrun with hogs and rubbish. First, he and the students cleaned the land. Then to the bewilderment of all, he asked for a two-horse plow. When one was found he started plowing, and the farmers started laughing. With this completed, he and the students covered the field with muck from the swamp and leaf mold from the forest. This he plowed under and of all things he planted cowpeas!
When the students harvested the puny cowpeas with one miserable pea in each pod they were disgusted, all this work for something to feed the hogs. But, the teacher surprised them again.
“Now I’ll show you how to cook them,” he stated evenly. Now he was really the C.M.O.C. (crazy man on campus) – only hogs and cattle ate cowpeas. Nevertheless, one evening the students sat down to a delicious meal prepared by their professor. Never had they tasted such fine food, with every dish made from the lowly cowpeas. People began to talk. His classes began to grow.
When he planted sweet potatoes, they just watched without saying anything this time. When he harvested eighty bushels from each acre, their eyes really popped!
In the spring he told his students, “I’ve been rotating crops on this land. It has been rested and refreshed, and enriched. Now we’ll plant cotton.”
This the students and farmers could understand. His harvest of a five hundred pound bale from each acre brought the respect of whites and blacks alike. Never had this been done in this vicinity that was depleted from years of growing cotton one year after another. Now he was “in,” next to the heart of the farmers. Now he could begin his plan for rebuilding Alabama.
But, not every farmer could come to college to learn what he had to teach. Tuskegee would have to go to the people.
“We must go out and show them, not only how to produce, but what to produce, and then what to do with it. We must build them houses in their own communities and teach them how to live in them. We must take flowers from the woods and plant them in their yard, and prove to them that they can keep a cow which will give milk.”
To all of this Booker T. Washington nodded his head. So, in 1906 the Jessup Agricultural Wagon, donated by Morris K. Jessup, was set in operation with a Tuskegee graduate as head of demonstrations.
A “demonstration” typically went like this: A convenient field was plowed, and a garden planted. Diseases of fruit tree were pointed out. Trees were pruned properly and sprayed. An old run-down house was chosen, repaired, and cleaned. In it, women demonstrated model homemaking. They made curtains from flour sacks and wove rugs from grasses and corn shucks. They cooked and laundered. A nurse taught them how to care for babies and of their proper food and clothing.
Alabama began lifting her head!
Washington began to see tangible results of his years of labor. Great Tuskegee ran smoothly. Everywhere cotton was improving. Through the work of George, sweet potatoes became a stable crop, and the base of at least 118 products including starch, vinegar, shoe blacking, library paste, and candy.
Peanuts became a multi-million dollar crop, and the base for nearly 300 products including milk, butter, cheese, coffee, pickles, shaving cream, soap, ink, and cosmetics.
Washington tried raising George’s salary for making his dreams come true. But George just shrugged his shoulders and asked, “What will I do with more money?”
Indeed, why did he need more money? He had what he needed, and he was helping the Alabama farmer get his much-needed share.
George let his paychecks pile up at the payroll office and only occasionally picked one up, as he needed it. “When he left Alabama in 1925, Dr. Carver had not drawn his last check from 1916!” says Earl Wilson, former Tuskegee banker.
Thomas A. Edison once offered him $100,000 a year to come and work on his staff. George refused saying, “I promised Mr. Washington I’d help out at Tuskegee. Mr. Washington is gone now, but Tuskegee isn’t.”
No doubt lesser men would have done much with the money that he didn’t take, but not him. He was only a sojourner in the world of men. He was poised lightly on the earth, his wings untrammeled by earthly concerns. Houses and land, bank accounts and insurances, diamonds and gold – lesser men need for security. George Washington Carver did not.
In the spring of 1928 Simpson College invited Dr. Carver back to speak at the Commencement that year. They wanted to confer upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Science.
College President Hillman wrote:
“When I consider the difficulties with which you had to contend, I am simply amazed at what you have accomplished. Our college honors itself by conferring on you this degree.”
George looked at the letter in his hand. He had done only a little for his friends in need. He lifted his eyes, “Thank you for your help Mr. Creator.”
He looked up and saw now – not bare hills, only magnolia trees in bloom, the climbing honeysuckle, acres of peanuts, and beneath his feet, his green pastures of Alabama clay.