George Washington Carver: Grandfather of Sustainability – Part II

In Part I, we learned about George Washington Carver’s early years, from his birth as a slave in Missouri through his early education. We left during his teen years, as he finds a ride with the Smith family to find more schooling, and, hopefully, more opportunities, in Fort Scott, Kansas.

This brilliant mini-biography by Cheri Colburn first appeared in Greenwoman #2.  It’s available in that issue, or in its entirety as an ebook on

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Self-Sufficiency, Racism, and Carver’s Quest for Education

The Smith family dropped George off on Main Street and drove away. Once again he was in a strange town with nobody expecting him. He needed work and a place to stay. He began knocking on kitchen doors and was directed toward the home of Lucy Payne, who needed help cooking for her very particular husband. George assured her he was up to the task, but that was a bit of an overstatement. George was used to cooking very basic foods, and Mr. Payne was used to eating a more refined diet. George was in a tight spot. He told Miss Lucy that he would like to watch how she prepared the food so that he would do it just right. George’s habit of “I want to know” and “I can do that” served him once again; Mr. Payne congratulated his wife on finding such a fine cook.

After George had saved enough money for books and a place to stay (he had been living in a small room under the Payne’s back stairs), he left his position and went to school. That became the rhythm of his life for the next two years. He worked until he had money to go to school. Then he went to school until he ran out of money. During this time, George did all kinds of household work, making the most of all of both his skills and his work ethic.

But none of George’s hard work, none of his good luck, and none of his native talent and studious nature could protect him from the racism that was all around him. His authorized biography (Holt) mentions very few racist incidents, reflecting Carver’s tendency to stay on his own path regardless of racism and ignorance (and emphasizing the impact on Carver of racists experiences that are mentioned). The story I’m about to tell is not mentioned in Holt at all.

One day Carver (who was in his middle teens) was walking down a street in Fort Scott, carrying his schoolbooks and enjoying the day, when two white men stopped him. They asked him where he got the books, and they demanded that he give the books to them. When George refused, asserting that he had bought them and they were his books, the men—in broad daylight and in front of many very silent witnesses—beat him to the ground and took his books. (Imagine such a trauma for a motherless teenager alone in the world!) George had no money to buy new books, so he simply picked himself up and began looking for work again.

He found the work he needed in the home of a blacksmith. One night during his tenure in that position, he came upon a horrifying and brutal scene. George was returning from a few errands when, from a hiding spot deep in a shadow, he watched an angry white mob pull a black man from the jail, beat him to death in the street, and set his remains on fire in the public square. From Holt: “[George] shuddered through the night, and before daylight could reveal the scene of man’s ferocity he was away out of that place forever.”

Closer to the Sun—and The Great Eclipse

Thus began ten years of working and schooling. Carver met and worked for many fine people. He continued his hobbies of lace-making, gardening, reading, and when he had supplies, painting. For work, he “cooked, scrubbed clothes, chopped wood, tended gardens, cleaned rugs, dug ditches, picked fruit, hammered nails, swabbed outhouses, whitewashed fences—whatever anyone wanted done” (Elliot). Over and over again, his “I can do that!” spirit came through. Carver grew into an honorable and God-fearing man, never taking charity but always willing to help people in need. He also developed what would become a lifelong habit of walking at dawn—trudging through whatever natural space was available and bringing home bits of interest such as rocks, Native American artifacts, and plants he wished to investigate.

At one point, Carver lived in a town that had another George Carver. When Carver realized that his mail was often delivered to the wrong George Carver, he decided to take a middle initial. People often asked what the “W” stood for, repeatedly suggesting that it stood for Washington. At some point, Carver (who was not altogether comfortable with what might be perceived as the grandiosity of the name) quit correcting people. He became George Washington Carver.

When Carver was in his early 20s and enrolled in his final year of high school, he received a sad letter from Aunt Mariah. Nearly a year before, his brother Jim, always much heartier than George, had died from smallpox. Carver felt severed from his childhood and driven toward the bright light of higher education. He wanted to attend college.

Carver began sending out applications and was eventually accepted to Highland College in Highland, Kansas. Quickly he put his affairs in order and took a “nostalgic tour,” visiting Uncle Moses and Aunt Sue (now in their 70s), Uncle Andy and Aunt Mariah, and Jim’s grave. Finally, in September, he presented himself to the principal of Highland College. From Holt:

“The principal was busy and looked up sharply from his desk. ‘Well, what do you want?’

‘I am George W. Carver, sir. I’ve come to matriculate.’

‘We take only Indians here, no Negroes.’”

That was the full extent of the conversation. The principal of the school had barely glanced at Carver before dousing his bright dream. With no money and no destination, Carver wandered to the train station where he sat long into the night. He wanted desperately to leave the scene of his devastation, but he had no choice but to find work.

Once again, he wandered, taking whatever work he could find. But this time things were different. His dream was dead. He believed now that his path was merely to make the best of his circumstances. Again, he found work where he could. He worked in a greenhouse and was fired by the nasty, racist owner who accused him of stealing. He thought he might start a greenhouse of his own, but he did not have the resources. He found work where he could, eventually landing in the Beeler household. The Beelers had a son who was homesteading; in 1886 Carver, casting about for some hope, filed his own 160-acre claim south of Beeler Kansas. He built a sod house and put in crops.

George had to work while waiting for his crops to grow. For awhile, he worked for a family of racists; they are not necessarily worthy of a place in history, so I won’t dwell except to quote (from Holt) Carver’s considerable insight into the matter of racism:

“He warned himself that when he had hateful thoughts about Mrs. Steeley, he was ruining his disposition and becoming just as hateful as she. He urged that at heart she was a good person, but was afflicted with a feeling of being inferior, which forced her to dominate somebody or other to try to prove she was superior.”

And so George Carver was to live his whole life. All through his years at Tuskegee (which I will get to in a moment), he rarely gave racists a bit of his concern. He just kept moving forward, focused on his own purpose.

Carver’s Place in the Sun

In 1890 or thereabouts, Carver met the (white) Milholland family at the Methodist Church where he attended services. When Mrs. Milholland heard George sing, she wanted to know him better. (Carver had a beautiful tenor voice, and his “I want to know” spirit had driven him to learn to use it and to play a little music.) The family invited George into their home, and he and Mrs. Milholland discovered they had much in common. Mrs. Milholland had a greenhouse and, like Carver, a passion for gardening. She was also an amateur painter. When George saw the sorry condition of her brushes and palette, he immediately began to set them right. Seeing that he was expert with the tools, Mrs. Milholland asked if he had advice for the painting she had underway. From that point forward, Carver gave her painting instruction in exchange for piano lessons.

Over time Carver became great friends with the Milhollands, and their home was often his as well. As they got to know Carver better, the Milhollands began to appreciate that he was a serious student. (Carver had set up a school for himself and kept strict hours for each subject.) Whether Carver would allow himself to hope for it or not, the Milhollands knew he should go to college.

They also knew that Simpson College in Iowa had been endowed by Matthew Simpson, a Methodist bishop and friend of Abraham Lincoln. Simpson had been a believer in the equality of all men, and Mr. Milholland assured Carver that Simpson College would accept him if only he would go. But—after Carver’s disappointment at Highland years before—he required persistent persuasion. Eventually, however, they won him over; one day while scrubbing a customer’s clothes in his little home/laundry service, Carver’s light came back on. He would go to college.

Carver, now nearly 30 years old, entered Simpson in the fall of 1890, enrolling in all the classes you’d expect (along with a preparatory course in math, his weak point).  Then he presented himself to the art teacher, Miss Etta Budd. She was shocked that a black student would want to enter such an impractical course and required that Carver prove himself and his skills. After two weeks of restless anxiety and labored sketching, Carver did just that. He went on to become one of the finest students Miss Budd had ever known.

GWC with painting

A friendship grew between Carver and Miss Budd, and so did her concern for his welfare. Although he was a talented student, she knew of no black people who made a living with art. She spoke with him about the possibility of pursuing a more practical path. In fact, Carver had been very happy at Simpson, where he was finally free to paint to his heart’s content and where he had formed many satisfying friendships. But Carver had been troubled by a sense that he should be doing more to help his people. Aunt Mariah’s words, uttered when Carver was just a boy, rang in his ears—“Go out in the world and give your learning back to our people. They’re starving for a little learning.”

So when Miss Budd told Carver that she had spoken with her father— J.L. Budd, Professor of Horticulture at Iowa Agricultural College in Ames—and that Ames would take him, Carver sadly agreed that he should go. He enrolled at Ames in May of 1891.

During his time at Ames—both as a student and later as an instructor—Carver studied mycology extensively. (I will save you the time I spent looking it up: mycology is the study of fungi.)  His descriptions and discoveries of several fungi were added to the general library on the subject. In fact, several fungi are named for Carver; just watch for carveri in your mycological meanderings, and you will find a testament to his work.

Carver’s achievements and hard work found a counter-balance in his general enjoyment of life. He joined clubs. He played music at school and community events. He attended church. He made countless friends and was admired by people who knew him. He created an unknown number paintings (unknown because many of them were destroyed in a fire at Tuskegee in the years following his death), and his talent was widely recognized.

In fact, during his Ames years, some classmates entered one of his paintings for consideration by the organizers of the Worlds Columbian Exposition (aka, “The World’s Fair) in Chicago. “Yucca and Cactus” was accepted for show. As you might suspect, plants were frequently the subject of Carver’s painting; they were a beautiful combination of his love for art, his love for the natural world, and his interest (conceived in his “plant hospital”) in the why and how of plant forms and habits.

In 1896, Carver received his Master’s Degree in agriculture and bacterial botany and began teaching at Ames. He was content but had a dis-ease with that contentment, an ongoing nagging belief that he should be doing more to help his race. Then, in April of 1896, he received a letter from the African American leader, Booker T. Washington:

I cannot offer you money, position, or fame. The first two you have. The last, from the place you now occupy, you will no doubt achieve. These things I now ask you to give up. I offer you in their place work—hard, hard work—the task of bringing a people from degradation, poverty and waste to full manhood. (Elliot)

Washington was offering Carver the opportunity to head the agricultural department at Tuskegee, a struggling and impoverished black college in Alabama. And in that offer, according to Elliot, “God had revealed His plan for George Carver.”

Stay tuned for Part III, coming next week. . . .


Cheri Colburn is a writer and editor who brings books into being through her midwifery business, The Finished Book. Her “likes” include hiking, the sound of her children’s voices, and long days digging in the dirt. Her “dislikes” include dieting, deadlines, and quitting bad habits.

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2 responses to “George Washington Carver: Grandfather of Sustainability – Part II

  1. C.M.

    Ah, but this was such a lovely thing to read! I thank you.

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