By Laura Wiersema ’18
Brian L. Johnson turned the annual Carver Lecture and Medal Ceremony at Simpson College into a history lesson as he outlined the friendship and similarities between George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington, urging students to seek guidance from the way they lived.
Johnson, the seventh president of historic Tuskegee University in Alabama, is the 44th person invited to give the lecture, created to honor the legacy of Carver, whose academic career began at Simpson. The Carver Medal was established in 2008. The event was held on Feb. 22 in Smith Chapel.
For his talk, Johnson said he explored the connections between Carver and Washington, who founded what was then known as Tuskegee Institute in 1881. He invited Carver to head the Agriculture Department, and Carver taught there for 47 years, becoming one of the country’s foremost botanists and inventors.
Johnson said the two men, who often challenged each other in regular correspondence, prove that faith and knowledge can co-exist. More importantly, he discussed the ways in which everyone can take inspiration from and emulate the two extraordinary scholars.
“Faith and learning played a deep and abiding sense of who they were,” he said.
He noted that both Washington and Carver were men of great integrity and knowledge, fleeing ignorance in their pursuit of them. At the same time, neither man thought they were required to abandon their faith to pursue knowledge. Nor was faith an excuse not to learn all they could.
“Having a deeply personal faith does not absolve you from the work of climbing the ladder of reason,” Johnson said. “[Carver] felt integrity was not something that he could forsake in becoming something that he was not.”
During their time working together, both Carver and Washington’s integrity was questioned, but they had the humility and fearlessness to stand their ground, Johnson said.
“To be fearless at that time was often not as simple as we might suspect,” he said.
Carver, having great success in science, was offered many other prestigious and better-paying career opportunities, but he had the humility and fearlessness to stay committed to what he believed was his calling: teaching and furthering science and agriculture at Tuskegee.
Those values – humility and courage – “ought to be values that our students model and embrace in their own lives,” Johnson said.
He closed his speech by urging the audience to not disconnect faith from learning and to study the past as a way to understand the present and the future, following the examples of Carver and Washington.
“Faith and learning played a deep and abiding sense of who these men were,” he said. “I view George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington as both men who had those values that were inculcated by their faith, and inculcated by them that what they were doing was most important and that posterity would prove them out.”
Since its establishment in 2008, the Carver Medal has been given to individuals who have distinguished themselves through service and used their gifts and imagination to serve as an inspiration to others. The recipient also is expected to demonstrate leadership, advance the fields of science education, the arts or religion and dedicate themselves to addressing humanitarian issues.
This marks the third time in eight years that someone with a connection to Tuskegee University has been awarded the Carver Medal.
In addition to Johnson, the Iowa Tuskegee Airmen received the award in 2010. Lt. General Russell C. Davis, who received the award in 2012, was born in Tuskegee and his grandfather worked with Carver at the university.
Johnson said the people at Tuskegee University view Simpson as their “sister” college because of the Carver connection. After his talk, he informally suggested the two schools might want to strengthen those ties in the future by exploring the idea of exchanging faculty and students.