The value of an infant

George Washington Carver in his lab (Library of Congress)

What difference can one baby make? Almost any student of U. S. history can tell you at least one achievement of George Washington Carver, scientist, and educator. But did you know he almost didn’t get to achieve any of that?

George was born in1864 to an enslaved mother in Diamond, Missouri, about seventeen miles from Joplin. His mother, Mary, was only thirteen when Moses Carver, a white man, bought her. Moses was looking for cheap labor for his farm. There is speculation that Moses fathered George, but no proof. Other sources say that George’s father was an anonymous black man who was killed in an accident. Mary was 23 when George was born.

Missouri was a border state, admitted as a place where slavery was legal. As with the other border states, raiders sometimes came and stole black people, to either sell them into slavery or resell them farther away. One night the raiders came to the Carver farm. George was a baby, and the raiders didn’t see him as worth much, but they kidnapped Mary, her daughter, and George. Moses was tied up, but after he escaped, he tried to find Mary. After some unsuccessful searching on is own, he hired a neighbor to look for her.

The neighbor tracked them as far as a slave market in Kentucky, but there the trail ended. He wasn’t able to find Mary or her daughter. Making a deal with one of the kidnappers, he arranged to trade Moses Carver’s best horse for infant George. Moses posted the horse on a tether outside at night, and a rider swept in, took the reins of the horse, and tossed George to Moses, riding out again.

A poor enslaved black orphan, George went on to become “the plant doctor”. Moses and his wife Susan taught George to read and write. He was a sickly child, constantly having colds and fevers, and lacked the physical stamina of his brother James. James worked the fields as a helper to Moses, but George experimented with plants and helped Susan. At age 11, George went away to school and was taken in by a black couple, Andrew and Mariah Watkins. The school was mediocre, and George soon became an itinerant student, moving around Kansas and the midwest in search of education and work.

George was accepted at Highland College, a Presbyterian school. He walked there, but when he arrived, he was disenrolled, because of being black. He knocked around Kansas some more, and eventually gained admittance to Simpson College, a private Methodist school in Indianola, Iowa, just south of Des Moines. Simpson accepted all qualified applicants, and still is a model of inclusive education, without judgment of “race, ethnicity, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, national origin, citizenship, first language, religious or spiritual tradition, age, functional ability, socioeconomic status, physical attributes or familial status”. Though initially interested in the arts, George changed to focus on science and agriculture, becoming one of the first black Americans to earn a bachelor of science degree in 1894. By 1896, he earned a Masters degree in agriculture and moved to begin an agriculture school at Tuskegee Institute.

Carver popularized crop rotation and taught poor farmers to feed hogs acorns instead of more expensive products. He invented more than 300 products from peanuts, a plant previously thought worthless. Soap, cooking oil, salad oil, wood stain, cosmetics, and antiseptics are just a few of the products that sprang from his experiments and imagination. (Peanut butter wasn’t one of them). His contributions to agriculture and plant science won fame, recognition from three U.S. presidents, and earned him his own US Postal stamp and presidential statue. In his later years, he traveled promoting racial harmony.

This “worthless” orphan who had every reason to fail, no advantages, and no reason to succeed, changed the world.

George Washington Carver quotes:

Ninety-nine percent of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses.”

Fear of something is at the root of hate for others, and hate within will eventually destroy the hater.”

Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.

When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.

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