When I was a sixth grade lad in Fulton, Missouri, I attended Carver School. Our school district at that time had one school building for all sixth graders. Carver was named for George Washington Carver, the famous scientist and inventor. Carver is best known for the many uses he discovered for the peanut.
Carver was born during the Civil War in Diamond, Missouri into a slave family. A week after his birth, George, his mother, and his sister were kidnapped by raiders from Arkansas. The three were sold in Kentucky, and among them only George was located by an agent of Moses Carver, the master of George’s family, and returned to Missouri.
As a youngster, George and his brother traveled 10 miles to attend a school for black children. At age 12, he left home for good to attend high school, supporting himself by doing chores and work on various farms. At age 20, he was accepted to attend Highland College in Highland, Kansas. George’s hopes were dashed when they denied his admittance once they found out he was black.
So, instead of attending classes, he homesteaded a claim, where he began his biological experiments. He then was accepted into Simpson College in Iowa, which admitted students of any race. He worked in a laundry and excelled in painting and music. One of his works even won first prize at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
But even as he excelled in the fine arts, George changed his focus to agriculture. He told James Wilson, the dean of Agriculture at Iowa State he “wanted to get an agricultural education to help his race.” Following his skills in the fine arts “would be of no value to my colored brethren…” George went on to receive a degree in agriculture from Iowa State. He excelled in botany and horticulture so much so that two professors urged him to stay on as a graduate student. He stayed and earned his master’s degree, working as an assistant botanist for the College Experiment Station. He became the first African American faculty member at Iowa State.
In April 1896, Carver received an offer from Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute to run the school’s agriculture department. By doing so he would give up his comfortable life in Iowa, where he was respected professionally and accepted as a member of the community. He would move to Alabama, in the heart of the deep South, where he would be regarded as a second class citizen. He took the job because he thought of others and wanted to help people in harder circumstances than himself.
Tuskegee’s agriculture department rose to national prominence under Carver’s leadership. He earned the respect of other inventors such as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, as well as several presidents of the United States. Areas of research and training included methods of crop rotation and development of alternative cash crops for farmers who planted cotton. This was important after the devastation of the boll weevil in 1892 to the cotton crop. The development of new crops helped stabilize the livelihoods of people who had backgrounds similar to Carver’s.
Carver’s experiments focused on new uses for crops like peanuts, sweet potatoes, soybeans, and pecans. He rose to international fame and was made a member of the British Royal Society of Arts in 1916. He also advised Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi on matters of agriculture and nutrition. Carver used his celebrity to promote scientific causes for the remainder of his life. He promoted the importance of agricultural innovation, the achievements at Tuskegee, and the possibility of racial harmony in the United States. He died in 1943 and was buried next to Booker T. Washington on the Tuskegee grounds. Carver’s epitaph reads: “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”
If Carver had focused his attention on his talents for the arts, or if he had stayed in his comfortable position in Iowa, he would have never achieved what he did at Tuskegee. His life was focused on unselfish thinking, trying to help others. Carver said, “It is service that measures success.”
Those are great words to live by. We work in an industry that is not driven by profits, but by the people we help. It is not focused on the accumulation of cash, but the advancement of our communities. We are not striving after massive fame, but by memorable friends and families. Every day, in our credit unions and in our lives, we have the ability to make a difference with our service. The challenge is to rise above our selfish limitations and to serve others. That is what will make us great.