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GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVERCHRISTIAN ENCOUNTERS SERIES
By JOHN PERRY
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 John Perry
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCARVER'S GEORGE
Southwestern Missouri in the winter of 1863 was a lawless and deadly land. The war that ripped the United States in two had divided Missouri families against themselves. Though a slaveholding state, the legislature had voted in 1861 to stand with the Union even as Confederate sympathies ran strong. Governor Claiborne Jackson himself led an army of secessionist irregulars on one bloody raid after another. The southwest corner of the state in particular endured endless skirmishes as the two sides fought for control. Making a bad situation worse, the region was a crossroads for soldiers, militiamen, marauders, scavengers, opportunists, bounty hunters, and deserters traveling between the Union and the Confederacy, some with shifting loyalties, others who willingly took the law into their own hands. From rebel Arkansas to the south, raiders came to capture escaped slaves and return them for a reward. Abolitionists rode in from Kansas to the west, once a slave-holding territory and now a free state with its own bloody history, to help Missouri defend itself against homegrown adversaries. In between Arkansas and Kansas, the Oklahoma Indian Territory offered vast empty spaces to hide vigilante patrols, recruit soldiers for both sides, and for runaway slaves to disappear into the trackless plains.
Marion Township, just outside Diamond Grove near the Newton County seat of Neosho, was a rural settlement in the thickest of the Missouri guerrilla fighting. Confederates took over the county government and adopted an ordinance of secession, though in Neosho the Union loyalists likely outnumbered Southern sympathizers. Raiders and looters galloped through the countryside day and night, as did ordinary criminals who found opportunity in the confusion and lawlessness of the moment.
One of the five slaveholders listed in the Marion Township census of 1860 was Moses Carver. He and his wife, Susan, were relatively prosperous farmers, though they lived modestly and seemed to have no material wealth beyond what their neighbors did. Carver was also a successful stock trader and horse trainer. The couple had no children, which was a liability because farmers needed children to keep a place in good order; tending crops, cultivating a kitchen garden, caring for livestock, repairing fences and gates, cutting firewood, drawing water, and maintaining equipment was more than a couple alone could do. Like many Americans before him, Moses Carver was against the idea of one human being owning another but saw slavery as an economic necessity. The 1860 census listed Carver as owning two slaves, a woman named Mary and her mulatto (half white) infant son, Jim, born the previous October. Carver had bought Mary for seven hundred dollars in 1855 when she was thirteen. A female slave's children became the property of her owner.
By late 1863 Mary had another son, George. As with most children born in the countryside, especially slaves, there was no record of his birth. In later years George said he had been born in 1864 or '65. It is possible that a baby recorded as born in Marion Township on July 12, 1860, was George. A birth date so soon after his brother's indicated he arrived prematurely. That would account for his being small, frail, and hampered by severe breathing problems—conditions associated with premature birth, and which he dealt with all his life. George never knew his father, who died either before he was born or about that time. Again no official accounts exist, though in describing his early years, George wrote in 1922 that his father was the property of Mr. Grant, owner of the plantation next door, and was killed soon after George was born "while hauling wood with an ox team. In some way he fell from the load, under the wagon, both wheels passing over him."
Mary and her boys lived in what had once been Moses and Susan's cabin, a one-room log building with a fireplace, one window opening with shutters but no glass (a rare and expensive luxury on the frontier), and a packed earth floor. Earlier the Carvers had shared it with Moses' brother's three children, two boys and a girl, whom they raised after their father died. The children were grown and gone by 1860, and at some point the Carvers built a similar but larger home for themselves and gave their old home to Mary and her boys.
Some slaveholders in southwestern Missouri abandoned their homesteads during the war in the face of threats, raids, and destruction, but Moses would not be frightened off his property. After decades of work, he had built one of the most valuable farms in town, with a hundred acres under cultivation, an orchard, beehives, and a range of livestock. Though others might buckle under the pressure, Moses Carver was a stubborn man when he believed he was right.
Stories vary as to how many times the Carver farm was raided. There is one account that robbers came demanding money, which Carver refused. They ordered him to reveal where his savings were hidden. When he still said nothing, they hung him by his thumbs and burned his feet with hot coals. Stubborn Moses remained silent until the raiders finally gave up.
Either then or during another raid, invaders made off with property far more valuable to the Carvers than buried cash. One bitter cold November day Moses was working in the field and had Jim with him, while Mary was in her cabin with George. Seeing the attackers ride up, Moses and Jim hid from them, but Mary and George were kidnapped.
The men may have been traders or bounty hunters planning to sell captured slaves in Arkansas. As soon as they left, Moses started planning to rescue Mary and her boy, but he had no idea where to look first. His neighbor, Sergeant John Bentley, was a Union scout who knew the shadowy world of bushwhackers and vigilantes in the region and agreed to help. Moses promised a racehorse and forty acres of land for the return of his property. Riding through the night, Sergeant Bentley and his search party found George alone in an abandoned cabin. Bentley instructed the others to continue the chase, then carried the boy home and laid him in the crib with his own son for the night. The next day Bentley returned George to the Carvers and reported there was no sign of Mary. George's mother was never heard from again. Since the sergeant had found one slave but not the other, Moses gave him part of the reward: a fine horse valued at three hundred dollars.
Susan and Moses moved the two motherless slave boys into their house to raise as their own. Technically they remained slaves until a new state constitution was enacted on July 4, 1865, since the Emancipation Proclamation covered only the Confederacy. Yet practically, from the time Mary disappeared, the Carvers loved and cared for George and Jim as blood kin, just as they had cared for their niece and nephews years before. The brothers even assumed the Carver family name.
After the end of the war, the newly constituted Carver family settled down to life on the farm. Jim grew tall and strong and, like a typical farm boy, took on a list of chores at an early age. By his teens he could handle a day's work equal to what a man could do. His younger brother was a different story entirely. George remained a slight, sickly boy who fought off one respiratory illness after another. His constant coughing and breathing problems could have been symptoms of bronchitis, pneumonia, or even tuberculosis. His adoptive parents diagnosed whooping cough or croup. Whatever the cause, he coughed and hacked so much that he sometimes lost his voice.
Clearly George would never be able to shoulder his share of the farmwork a boy was expected to do. So instead of learning to plow, build a fence, and repair a piece of machinery, he learned to take care of the kitchen garden, gather eggs, and help Susan with the cooking, laundry, and other housework. Then or later he also learned to sew and crochet.
Moses Carver was known in the community as a man who understood animals. He raised and traded horses, mules, hogs, and other livestock, and had a pet rooster trained to perch on his shoulder. Added to his experience with crops, fruit trees, and bees, his animal knowledge made Moses something of an expert on the natural world in general. As George grew older, he became attracted to nature as well. He spent hours in the orchard and in the vegetable garden near the house. He planted a flower garden of his own; though he kept it a secret because he thought his foster parents would consider it a waste of time. George had what later generations would call a green thumb. Even the neighbors started noticing how attentive he was to plants, how he could make things grow, and especially how he could coax sick plants back to health.
Every moment he wasn't busy with housework George spent in the gardens or in the woods. He started collecting plant samples and rocks, along with frogs and other small animals he could slip in his pockets. Happy as Susan was to see George's fascination with nature, after one surprise too many she started making him turn his pockets out before he came inside. She also convinced him to pare down his rock collection after he piled them so high beside the hearth that she feared the whole stack would collapse.
George loved learning and was as eager to go to school as he was to know about plants. The Locust Grove School was only a mile or so away, but it didn't allow black children to attend. The same building hosted church services on Sunday and Wednesday, along with occasional shows by traveling come dy troupes. George was welcome at Locust Grove then, even though he couldn't attend school within the same four walls on the other days. The Carvers didn't go to church, but George was so interested in Christianity that he walked the mile by himself every Sunday morning. His Sunday school teacher, Flora Abbott, gave young George special encouragement. She recognized his passion for learning, helping him memorize Bible verses and assuring him that "the Lord heard and answered the prayers of a child just as surely as He did that of their parents." Mrs. Abbott also nurtured George's love for music. He started singing in church at Locust Grove and learned to pick out melo dies on the piano. Music had been part of George's life for as long as he could remember. Moses Carver played the fiddle so well that he was in constant demand at dances and picnics.
George Carver developed into a shy older boy. Because he was physically weak he didn't play with the others, preferring to stay on the sidelines and watch, even though sometimes other boys teased him for not joining in. He was consumed with the desire to know more about everything, and his playmates teased him about that too. Quiet and set apart as he was, he still had plenty of friends among the Carver relatives and neighbors. Black and white children played together as equals; only later were they taught that one race was inferior to the other.
Susan Carver did her best to satisfy George's hunger for knowledge by teaching him herself from a copy of Noah Webster's Elementary Spelling Book, known universally as the "blue-backed speller," one of the most widely used textbooks in America. Combining Susan's teaching with Mrs. Abbott's Sunday lessons, George learned to read and write, always longing to know more. On his walks he began praying for a chance to learn more about the plants he so enjoyed, and that God would direct his life.
The blue-backed speller couldn't begin to answer all the questions swirling around inside George's head. When an educated black man moved to Diamond Grove, Moses hired him to tutor George. It wasn't long though before George's curiosity took him beyond the tutor's abilities. Finally, Moses found a school in Neosho that would take "colored" students. George moved to the county seat, boarding with a couple named Andrew and Mariah Watkins. It was the first time he could remember living in a household headed by black people.
Mariah was a laundress. Since George had learned to do laundry at the Carvers, he eagerly pitched in to help Mariah with her work. She was also a midwife with a wealth of knowledge about the medicinal uses for plants. George absorbed everything she would tell him about them and still begged for more. Mariah was a devout Christian who took George to church and encouraged him to read the Bible. She told him about the slave named Libby who had taught her to read. "You must learn all you can, then be like Libby," she said. "Go out in the world and give your learning back to our people." That Christmas Mariah Watkins gave George a Bible, which he kept for the rest of his life.
Until he moved to Neosho, George had not used a last name. As a slave, he may have been referred to as "Carver's George." Mrs. Watkins thought a student ought to have a last name, and so enrolled him as George Carver. The teacher was a young black man named Stephen Frost, known to the students as "the professor." Like so many black educators in the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, he was poorly trained, poorly paid, and ill equipped for his work. As he had outpaced his tutor in Diamond Grove, George soon knew everything Professor Frost did. When George solved a math problem and the professor insisted he was wrong, George took the answer to a white teacher in town and got her to sign it saying it was correct.
Within a year or so George Carver had learned all that the school in Neosho could teach. He received his graduation certificate on December 22, 1876, and immediately began looking for a way to continue his education. When he heard that a family from Neosho was traveling to Fort Scott, Kansas, where there was a school open to blacks and whites alike, he convinced them to take him along. Within a few days, George bid the Watkins goodbye, collected his Bible and a few clothes, and headed west, walking most of the seventy-five miles because the wagon was too full of furniture to ride. They were headed for what widely distributed handbills called "Sunny Kansas," where emancipated slaves were streaming for the offer of free land and a fresh start.
Chapter TwoWANDERING YEARS
The first order of business for young George in Fort Scott was to find a job and a place to live. He came to town literally penniless, and so would have to work and save money before he could start school. What George lacked in physical strength he made up for in dedication and enthusiasm. Felix Payne and his wife were looking for a hired girl to cook and do housework. Carver applied for the job and Payne, a blacksmith, decided to give the teenager a chance. Growing up helping Susan Carver around the house, George learned to cook and serve meals, wash clothes, and do other chores. He tackled his new responsibilities enthusiastically. Every dish washed, every shirt ironed brought him closer to starting classes. He also worked part time at a grocery store across the street from the Paynes, and took in laundry for guests of the Wilder House hotel.
The moment he could afford it, George enrolled in school. When the money ran out, he quit long enough to earn another small stake, then picked up where he left off. He was an excellent student despite his erratic attendance. Carver spent two happy years in Fort Scott. At last he had the chance to get the education he had wanted for so long, and under normal circumstances he might have settled in town indefinitely.
But Carver's future was redirected on the night of March 26, 1879, when a black man was accused of raping a twelve-year-old white girl and thrown in the county jail. Wearing masks, a mob of thirty men swarmed the jail, grabbed the suspect, and hanged him from a lamppost as a huge crowd watched. Then they dragged the body through the streets, stopping in front of the Payne house to beat his brains out on the curb as George watched in terror from his window. Later the corpse was doused with kerosene and set on fire. Though he had seen and experienced discrimination all his life, George had lived mostly with white families who treated him as an equal. A savage lynching before a cheering crowd of a thousand or more was unimaginable to him. "As young as I was," Carver remembered a lifetime later, "the horror haunted me and does even now."
Excerpted from GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER by JOHN PERRY Copyright © 2011 by John Perry. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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