How To Master Your Focus – Lessons From George Washington Carver
The FOURTH in a Series of FIVE Essays Celebrating Black History Month
One man asked God to reveal to him the mysteries of the universe. God said he was too small to understand them. “But,” God replied, “I’ll show the mysteries of the peanut.” With the revelations he received, George Washington Carver, a former slave, found over 300 uses for the peanut and was accredited by many for saving the economy of the South. Here is his remarkable story…
George Washington Carver was born to Giles and Mary, slaves of Moses Carver, a fair-minded German immigrant who had purchased the couple for $700. The year of George’s birth was possibly 1864 or 1865. Like most slaves, exact birthdates were unknown.
When George was only a week old, raiders from Arkansas kidnapped him and his family. Only George's brother, James, escaped their fate. Kidnappers often took slaves and sold them in Kentucky for a handsome profit. Moses Carver hired a bounty hunter to find his stolen slaves. No one but the infant, George, was found. Carver eventually negotiated the return of the child in exchange for a horse.
When baby George was returned home, Moses and Susan Carver raised him and his older brother as their own children. They taught them how to read and encouraged them to continue their intellectual pursuits. George showed extreme astuteness with plant life, categorized and even drew pictures of the variety of plants that grew on and around the Carver farm. His education at home, aided by another slave they called, “Aunt Susan,” continued until he had exhausted the family’s intellectual resources before his tenth birthday. They knew it was time for George to receive a formal education.
As brilliant as he was, George was not allowed to attend the local school with white children. There was, however, a school for black children about ten miles away. George decided he wanted to go there. Knowing that a daily commute was impossible, George’s parents made arrangements for him to live at the school. After packing his belongings, they watched young George set off on the ten-mile journey to his new home. When he reached the town, it was late in the afternoon and the school was already closed. The only place he could find to stay for the night was in a nearby barn.
The next morning, bright and early, he left the barn and walked to the school. A kind woman named, Mariah Watkins, met him there. When she asked his name, like he had done his whole life, he identified himself as "Carver's George." When she heard this, she reversed the words and referred to him thereafter as George Carver. Admiring our first president, he added a middle name and eventually went by George Washington Carver. Mariah often encouraged young George to learn as much as possible so he could give back to his people. She made an impression on him with this philosophy and it became a guiding principle for the rest of his life.
Carver moved several times before eventually earning his high school diploma in Minneapolis, Kansas in his late teens. Desiring a college education, he applied to several institutions before being accepted at Highland College in Highland, Kansas. When he arrived, however, they rejected him because of his race.
In August 1886, Carver put his formal education on hold after hearing about the opportunity to homestead a piece of ground for himself in Ness County, Kansas. He traveled by wagon and staked his claim. There he was able to give attention to doing what he loved the most - growing things!
Carver maintained a small conservatory of plants and flowers on his 17 acre property, growing rice, corn and a full compliment of garden produce. He also grew a variety of fruit trees and shrubbery. To supplement his income, he performed odd jobs for other farmers in the area and worked on a ranch. The time he spent farming was inestimable for his future life. It provided Carver with practical experience that he would later build upon, establishing his theories on horticulture.
By early 1888, Carver decided to try college admission one more time. Having secured a $300 student loan from a local bank, he applied and was accepted at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. Originally, his focus was on art. His teacher, however, noticed Carver's interest in painting flowers and plants. After several conversations, she suggested he study botany. With a strong recommendation from the faculty of Simpson, Carver was the first black student accepted at Iowa State.
After graduation, his professors at Iowa State convinced Carver to earn his master's degree. Carver completed the program, focusing his research on plant pathology and mycology at the school’s Experimental Station. His work gained national recognition and he earned respect as a legitimate botanist. On the heels of his success, Carver became the first black faculty member at Iowa State.
In 1896, Booker T. Washington invited Carver to take over the Agricultural Department at Tuskegee Institute. Carver accepted the offer and like Washington, made Tuskegee his life’s work. For the next 47 years, Carver developing the Agricultural Department into a world class research center. He taught young black students and former slaves advanced methods of farming while introducing several alternative cash crops for farmers in the South where heavily cultivated fields of cotton were depleting the soil.
Regarding faith, George Washington Carver believed in God and in science at the same time. Coming to Christ as a young boy, he integrated the two throughout his life without conflict. He often testified that his faith in Jesus gave him the ability to effectively pursue and perform the work of science.
In a letter to Isabelle Coleman, dated July 24, 1931, Carver wrote about his conversion experience:
"I was just a mere boy when converted, hardly ten years old. There isn't much of a story to it. God just came into my heart one afternoon while I was alone in the loft of our big barn while I was shelling corn to carry to the mill to be ground into meal.
“A dear little white boy, one of our neighbors, about my age came by one Saturday morning, and in talking and playing he told me he was going to Sunday school tomorrow morning. I was eager to know what a Sunday school was. He said they sang hymns and prayed. I asked him what prayer was and what they said. I do not remember what he said; only remember that as soon as he left I climbed up into the loft, knelt down by the barrel of corn and prayed as best I could. I do not remember what I said. I only recall that I felt so good that I prayed several times before I quit.
“My brother and myself were the only colored children in that neighborhood and of course, we could not go to church or Sunday school, or school of any kind.
“That was my simple conversion, and I have tried to keep the faith."
Throughout his teaching career, Carver applied his faith to social values. Like the harmony he struck between faith and science, he also viewed faith in Jesus Christ as a means of destroying racial barriers and social disorder. In the wake of the Civil War and the establishment of Jim Crow Laws in the south, Carver believed Christ was the primary answer for souls filled with hate and racism.
As time went on, Carver continued to seek God for guidance in his studies of agriculture. It was said that he prayed one morning for God to reveal to him the secrets of universe. To which God replied, “Little man, you’re not big enough to know the secrets of my universe, but I’ll show you the secrets of the peanut.”
Understanding the mysteries of the peanut became Carver’s passion!
From 1915 to 1923, Carver concentrated on researching and experimenting with new uses for peanuts. As he made new discoveries, his assistants accumulated a list of the peanut’s many uses. In the end, Carver had accumulated over 300 uses for the oily nut! He even published what became his most popular writing called, “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption.” It was reprinted many times as a recipe guide in magazines and newspapers, such as the Peerless Cookbook, Good Housekeeping, and Berry's Fruit Recipes.
His research on peanuts may have singlehandedly saved the agricultural economy of the South. A little insect called the boll weevil began devastating the American cotton crop as early as 1892. Carver’s research on the peanut along with his call to place steep tariffs on imported peanuts, created a demand that only Southern farmers could fill. Many farmers changed from growing cotton to growing the more prosperous peanut. Ironically, a former slave to whom God was showing the mysteries of the peanut saved the same plantations that kept slavery alive for generations!
Because of his work at Tuskegee and his great achievements in agriculture, along with having been credited with saving the economy of the South, Carver became a national and international celebrity. During his life, he was one of the most famous African-Americans alive. He associated with the likes of Henry Ford and was invited to meet with three different American Presidents. Throughout his career, he continued to help farmers produce better crops through his research at Tuskegee.
Carver never married and spent the rest of his life living and teaching at Tuskegee. In his seventies he established a museum of his work, as well as a foundation to continue his agricultural research. He donated nearly all of his $60,000 life savings to the project, equivalent to $1,020,851 in today’s dollars.
At the age of 78, Carver took a fretful fall down a flight of stairs. He was found unconscious and taken to a hospital. George Washington Carver died on January 5, 1943 as a result of the injuries he sustained in the fall. He was buried next to Booker T. Washington on the Tuskegee campus.
On July 14, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the George Washington Carver National Monument near Carver’s childhood home in Missouri. It was the first national monument dedicated to an African American and the first to honor anyone other than a President of the United States.
George Washington Carver made discoveries by focusing his creativity on a single subject - the peanut. He used his creative focus to help thousands and perhaps even millions of people. In light of the facts of his life, please consider the following questions:
- How do you think the words of Mariah Watkins changed Carver’s life?
- How did he react to adverse circumstances and how can we do the same?
- What things are you passionate about?
- What can you do to focus more time and energy on these passions of yours?