Over his career, Luther Williams has seen the impact of racist education standards and a lack of Black representation in science.
Williams is a retired biologist and academic administrator. He spent several decades working as a faculty member, provost, and president at universities across the country. In 1993, President Bill Clinton recognized his work at the National Science Foundation creating opportunities for African Americans. Despite his success, Williams is quick to note that he’s been the first and only Black professor within many of the biology departments at predominantly white universities that he has worked.
As states increase their restrictions of Black history content in schools, Williams thinks the stories and faith of Black scientists can help inspire equity and climate activism.
George Washington Carver and faith-fueled action
Williams keeps a photo of George Washington Carver in his study, one his wife gifted him during his graduate studies. Williams said his journey was inspired by Carver’s willingness to bring his faith to his work as a scientist.
Born enslaved in Missouri circa 1864, Carver never knew his father. As a baby, his mother was kidnapped, and he suffered poor health thereafter. Historians believe he was castrated before puberty. He also witnessed a lynching of a Black man while he was a teenager studying in Ft. Scott, Kan., — a terror he said haunted him the rest of his life.
Despite his trauma and lack of resources, “he found his reasons to be through a deeply forged spirituality. That’s where he lives and that’s where he accomplished much,” Williams said.
Carver, Williams said, saw God’s creation as one entity made up of many parts, including people, animals, plants, water, and land. A Tuskegee University scientist who lived from 1864 to 1943, Carver helped revolutionize agricultural practices in the South. Repeated plantings of cotton had depleted the land. Carver taught farmers how to improve poor soils with crop rotations — planting peanuts, legumes, and cowpeas in rotating seasons returned nitrogen to the soil, leading to healthier soil and better harvests.
“I indulge in very little lip service, but ask the Great Creator silently daily, and often many times per day to permit me to speak to Him through the three great Kingdoms of thew world, which He has created, viz.—the animal, mineral and vegetable Kingdoms; their relations to each other, to us, our relations to them and the Great God who made all of us,” Carver wrote in a 1941 letter. “I ask Him daily and often momentarily to give me wisdom, understanding and bodily strength to do His will, hence I am asking and receiving all the time.”
Carver also influenced agricultural policy in the New Deal, working to prevent soil erosion during the Dust Bowl while helping to uphold the livelihoods of Black sharecroppers. According to Tuskegee, Carver’s innovations helped create over 300 peanut products.
After a 1924 editorial in The New York Times criticized him for his integration of science and faith, Carver responded: “I thoroughly understand that there are scientists to whom the world is merely the result of chemical forces or material electrons. I do not belong to this class…” he said. “‘And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.’ John 8-32. Science is simply the truth about anything.”
Sharon Grant, a church historian who runs Hood Theological Seminary’s International Center of Faith, Science and History, noted the editorial as an attempt to discredit Carver, his race, and Tuskegee. Grant relies heavily on Carver’s example in her educational programming that reaches future pastors, church congregations, and young students.
To Grant, Carver’s caring for soil and caring for souls are connected. “There’s a parallel between how you revitalize soil and how you revitalize souls, people who have been stripped of their potential,” Grant said in an interview for Science for the Church. In the environmentally degraded South, restoring the soil rejuvenated the spirits and livelihoods of Black farmers.
Inspiring the next generation
For Williams, the “consequential challenge” is advancing more Black Americans through science.
“The [lack of Black scientists is] a crisis, even if we as a people are doing great things in other domains,” he said. “How can we progress from the last seat of the American economic train? It can’t be done without a large number of people who are seeking to be Carver-like.”
According to Pew Research, Black students have earned about seven percent of bachelor’s degrees in science, tech, engineering, and math as of 2018, despite being 12 percent of the population. The gap is more pronounced for those earning advanced degrees in science, especially doctorates. Hispanic adults are also underrepresented in advance STEM degrees.
During Williams’ career, he told Black history to help create purpose for his students — whether they were grad students or young learners participating in programming at the Missouri Botanical Garden, where he directed education later in his career.
Carver’s life illustrates that despite “the challenges of American life, which remains decidedly unequal… one can carve out a life that is meaningful and consequential.” For Williams, it’s not just Carver’s brilliance, but how he created a rich, inner, spiritual life that reinforced his sense of self and purpose. “It’s a large lesson for African Americans,” he said.
And across the U.S., Black science professionals are carrying the torch.
Black science future
Adam Hubert, a science teacher in North Carolina and member of the Young Evangelicals for Climate Action steering committee, said exposure to Carver, as well as chemist Alice Ball, who made contributions to the treatment of leprosy in the early 20th century, were instrumental in his life’s direction. Much of his introduction to historical and contemporary scientists came through his home church in Chattanooga, Tenn.
“Both the church and schools can help address the climate crisis by showing our youth those that have come before them, and the ways they used science as a way of liberating themselves and our people,” he told Sojourners.
Hubert sees both the destructive and healing aspects of the natural world, and how inequality can exacerbate climate change’s effects on oppressed communities.
“If we choose not to act on climate, many of us Black folk are in frontline communities and will experience the effects of climate change the most,” he said. Yet, Black people of faith also see “the ability to repair what is broken to help create the world we want to live in.”
Carresse Gerald, a professor of environment science at North Carolina Central University, visited the Carver’s lab at Tuskegee while she was in her undergraduate program. She admires Carver, marine biologist Joan Murrell Owens, and NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson.
“Acknowledging the oppression they faced while trying to get the science down is intimidating for me to just think about,” she said.
Like Carver, Gerald is confronting a daunting environmental challenge that hits minority communities the hardest. She studies fish in North Carolina’s Lumber River, which contain high levels of mercury due to the burning of coal for electricity. These fish are a source of food for predominantly Black and Indigenous communities. Carver’s story inspires her own work, to build momentum for change built on a foundation of Black spirituality.
“The protests and marches [of the Civil Rights era] that brought attention to voting rights and worker health can also bring attention to climate change especially in our communities of color,” she said.