Black history in U.S. agriculture: Refresh, learn, and acknowledge


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Jul 14, 2023

Black history in U.S. agriculture: Refresh, learn, and acknowledge

Insights SmartNews By Bre Holbert Published: February 09, 2023 “Did you know

Insights SmartNews

By Bre Holbert Published: February 09, 2023

"Did you know that George Washington Carver (GWC) didn't discover peanut butter?"

There I was: Twenty-five years old, bachelors of science in agriculture, first year ag teacher in a classroom full of minority agricultural education students who honorably look up to farmers of color like GWC as POC representation in the industry. And not one of us knew that GWC did not invent peanut butter.

My students were stumped; sitting anxiously, eyes moving from one classmate to another. One brave hand inched their way upward amongst the sea of puzzled students and asked: "So, if he didn't create peanut butter, then why do we always hear he did?"

What my students and I were unaware of prior to the week I reviewed GWC with them, is that GWC was actually the first person to discover how to harvest oil from peanuts, which was the foundation for the invention of peanut butter.

"Isn't that the same thing though, Miss Holbert?"

Categorically, no.

Prior to teaching this lesson on agriculture research, it seemed like everywhere I traveled to or any conversation I had that was related to George Washington Carver always included the phrase: "Yes, and did you know that he (GWC) invented peanut butter?"

However, I researched the list of inventions from GWC prior to my lesson and discovered that yes, peanut butter was not one of his inventions.

Peanut oil. Peanut oil was his discovery. How to extract such a necessary ingredient for peanut butter was his feat.

Now, peanut butter itself has become so mainstream. It may sound so silly that I am speaking about it in this way … or what my kids would say, that Holbert is "gassing it up" way too much. But, to them and to many of us reading this column, how peanut butter was made is so insignificant to us now. Why does it matter? Why does it matter that any invention was made? It was a really long time ago.

Research, inventions, progression toward a more sustainable world for the billions of people that live on our planet is a product of the people who had the courage to do something challenging. People like GWC who worked against the times, a Black man in a post-slavery and deeply segregated South who had a passion for peanut farming and nourishing people, had the courage to develop over 300 products using peanut oil — 300 products we still use today.

And there are so many more!

Booker T. Whatley believed in community based agriculture. Known to be the father of regenerative agriculture and a Black trailblazer for the farm-to-table movement, Whatley saw a need in his community and was challenged within to do something to change it. In a time where being a Black farmer was difficult, loans were not plentiful for farmers of color. So to attain income to balance the results of dry or low crop yielding seasons, Whatley developed the idea of "clientele memberships" or community supported agriculture boxes. His invention would not only become an essential source of income for small farmers but also become a common practice across the nation with many local organic farmers.

Henry Blair was a Black inventor who created one of the most pivotal inventions of our time: the corn planter, which resembled a wheelbarrow with a compartment to hold seed. This is an invention from which dozens of farm machinery companies and thousands of inventions have taken inspiration from for today's patented products. Blair's patented invention has allowed our planting practices in the fields to grow hundreds of times faster to feed our growing world.

This is what I tried to get my students to see.

Sure, we have many innovations to date. But, what we currently own and operate, the machinery we wield in our operations, the food we lay on the table for our families are products of the ideas and forethought of the people who came before us. Their contributions and courage have led to our comfort and to the ability to build upon or use what they did to make our current world better.

» Related: These African Americans fueled farming

And as we celebrate Black History Month, it is essential that we acknowledge the strength our Black agriculturalists had endured to achieve their success. My students and I are inspired by them, by their representation for people of color in agriculture, and by their courage to see adversity and work harder to arrive at a place where we can learn about their impact in our homes and classrooms.

So, as we sip our coffee, scroll through our or our Facebook feeds, get geared up for work over a quick newsflash, take some time to refresh, acknowledge, and/or even learn something about the Black agriculturalist who came before us.

And, as always, I am honored to have the privilege to transcribe and share their stories:

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Creative Commons

Inventions/contributions to American agriculture: Adhesives, axle grease, bleach, chili sauce, creosote, dyes, flour, instant coffee, shoe polish, shaving cream, vanishing cream, wood stains and fillers, insulating board, linoleum, meat tenderizer, metal polish, milk flakes, soil conditioner and Worcestershire sauce. Plus, 300 products from peanuts and over 118 products from sweet potatoes … just to name a few inventions of his.

Inventions/contributions to American agriculture: Community Supported Agriculture Programs, You-Pick Programs, Regenerative Agriculture Practices, the 1987 handbook How to Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres.

Inventions/contributions to American agriculture: The corn planter and the mechanical cotton planter.

Inventions/contributions to American agriculture: Mother of modern day heating (the gas furnace). So no family had to choose between the cost of food or the cost of staying warm. Aided in the cost of staying warm through rough cold seasons cheaper for families so they can afford essential nourishment.

Inventions/contributions to American agriculture: First successful refrigeration truck, extending the distance in which food can be transported successfully.

Inventions/contributions to American agriculture: Civil rights activist and founder of the National Black Farmers Association, an organization advocating for the equal treatment and support of Black farmers across the nation.

Bre Holbert is a past National FFA President and studied agriculture science and education at California State-Chico. "Two ears to listen is better than one mouth to speak. Two ears allow us to affirm more people, rather than letting our mouth loose to damage people's story by speaking on behalf of others."

George Washington Carver Booker T. Whatley Henry Blair Alice H. Parker Frederick McKinley John Boyd Jr. AG