Heads of state from Mahatma Gandhi to Joseph Stalin sought his talent. The top business leaders and entrepreneurs of his day eagerly desired to work with him. Henry Ford offered him unlimited resources, laboratory facilities and assistants if he would do research for his company. Thomas Edison reportedly told him, “Together we can remake the world.”

How is it that George Washington Carver, who was born a slave in southern Missouri and orphaned as an infant, generated such demand and respect in the society and culture of the 19th century? What insight could this humble teacher of botany and agriculture bring to a world that was racing into an industrial and technological future?

STRUGGLING FOR KNOWLEDGE

Carver was born sometime near the end of the American Civil War on a small plantation. While he was still an infant, a marauding band of criminals kidnapped him and his mother. The owner of the plantation was able to rescue Carver, but his mother was never found. Thus began a difficult life, with many obstacles to be overcome.

Carver was unable to attend school regularly until he was 12, but he desperately wanted to be there to learn as much as he could. He was forced to leave home and live with another family in order to attend school, paying for his board by doing the household chores. According to a number of accounts, he had to forgo recess at school so he could return home to help with the laundry, but he invariably took a book with him and continued to study during his chores.

Throughout his education, Carver spent almost as much time working to pay for his schooling as he did studying. But he was determined to learn, and neither lack of money nor the walls of racial discrimination that so dominated late-nineteenth-century America would deflect him from his goal. Despite all the obstacles, his attitude remained free from bitterness, his character bolstered by a warm and charismatic humility. Very often his gentle nature defused the tension when racially motivated criticisms and attacks came his way. His fellow students loved him and came to his defense many times when he faced the specter of hatred that still haunted the nation.

In 1890 he enrolled in Iowa’s Simpson College to study art and music. He was quite a good artist by most accounts, but opportunities for blacks in those fields were limited. So on the advice of a friend, he returned to his first love, agriculture and botany, with which he had become fascinated while growing up on the plantation. His motivation for this change was selfless. He felt that he could serve his people more through a knowledge of agriculture than through art. As a result, he left Simpson after one year and enrolled in Iowa State University.

Carver completed his master’s degree at Iowa State in 1896. But even before he graduated, his reputation as a bright student, researcher and inspiring teacher began to spread. Many universities and colleges were ready to offer him a position.