The role of African Americans in shaping the history of the United States cannot be over stated. Black history is American history, and it’s the history of U.S. agriculture. Enslaved people were the main workforce in cotton and tobacco plantations in the Antebellum South, and after the Emancipation Proclamation, they largely remained very poor “sharecroppers.” At their peak, in 1920, there were 925,708 Black farmers, accounting for 17 percent, or about one-sixth, of U.S. farmers. A century later, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, there were 35,470 farms with Black producers — just 1.7 percent of the U.S. total.
People of African descent have a long agricultural tradition in the U.S., in spite of their forced farm labor under chattel slavery. Black pioneers helped to settle the frontier long before the Civil War and are integral part of our American past, but that tradition is not well known. A number of historical figures have played prominent roles in agriculture around the time of the Civil War and through the Emancipation Proclamation and beyond. This post is dedicated to learning more about them and their lives.
To learn about pre-Civil War history, I suggest reading The Bone and Sinew of the Land: America’s Forgotten Black Pioneers and the Struggle for Equality, published in 2018. The book documents the migration of Black settlers into the Northwest Territory (now Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin), from the end of the Revolutionary War until the mid-1800s.
Booker T. Washington — The great educator
“No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.”
Booker Taliaferro Washington (1856-1915) was an American educator, author, orator, and adviser to multiple presidents of the United States. Between 1890 and 1915, Washington was the dominant leader in the African American community and of the contemporary Black elite.
APLU’s Council of 1890s designated 19 universities with land-grant status under the Morrill Act of 1890. In addition, there are two HBCUs designated under the Morrill Act of 1862.
These institutions were created to provide instruction, extension education, and research in agriculture, home economics, and the mechanical arts.
The Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute opened on July 4, 1881, by Washington and others, despite having no land, no buildings, and only a small state appropriation of $2,000 a year for faculty salaries. Washington borrowed money to buy a dilapidated plantation and employed students to erect buildings in exchange for tuition, holding classes in an African Methodist Episcopal church. Together, Washington and his students built Tuskegee Institute from the ground up, and the first class of 30 students graduated in 1885. Under Washington’s direction, students produced their own food and provided for most of their own basic necessities, including building a kiln and making bricks for new structures.
George Washington Carver — Saved the South from Starvation
George Washington Carver (1864-1943), was born a slave on a Missouri farm in 1865, Carver became the first Black student and the first Black faculty member at what is now Iowa State University and was later recruited by Booker T. Washington to the Tuskegee Institute.
He was an agricultural scientist, inventor and educator who sought to revitalize southern soil that was stripped by cotton, a nitrogen-depleting crop. He developed a crop-rotation method that alternated the cotton with legumes like peanuts that fix nitrogen and other edible crops such as corn. In addition to crop rotation, Dr. Carver promoted the practice of using compost to reintroduce nutrients and add organic matter to the soil. He showed that using compost for soil revitalization increased its productivity by a hundredfold compared with previous common methods.
During World War I, there were shortages of crops and food, and Carver began developed alternative uses for sweet potatoes, soybeans, and peanuts. Peanuts were primarily used at that time to feed livestock, but he developed hundreds of products, including plastics, synthetic rubber, and paper from them. From soybeans, Carver invented a process for producing paints and stains, for which three separate patents were issued. Among Carver’s many synthetic discoveries: 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. In all, he developed 300 products from peanuts and 118 from sweet potatoes, in addition to new products from waste materials including recycled oil, and paints and stains from clay.
Historians agree that Carver’s scientific achievements were one of the vitally important factors in the economic and social progress of the South.
Henry Blair — Patent holder, inventor, and farmer
Henry Blair (1807-1860) was an inventor and farmer, and the second African-American to hold a U.S. patent. Blair was born in Glen Ross, Maryland, in 1807, and was apparently not enslaved — he operated an independent business.
Despite being illiterate and uneducated, he was a successful farmer who patented two inventions: a corn planter and a cotton planter. The corn planter had a compartment that held and dropped seeds to the ground, and rakes followed to cover them with soil. The cotton planter was horse-drawn and had two shovel-like attachments that divided the soil. Behind it, he put a cylindrical wheel that dropped the seeds into the newly turned soil. Both of his inventions greatly increased efficiency on the farm by limiting labor and time.
At the time Blair’s patents were granted, United States law allowed patents to be granted to both free and enslaved men. In 1857, an enslaver challenged the courts for the right to claim credit for an enslaved person’s inventions. Since an enslaver’s enslaved people were his property, the plaintiff argued, anything in the possession of these enslaved people was the owner’s property as well. The following year, patent law changed so as to exclude the enslaved from patent eligibility. In 1871, after the Civil War, the law was revised to grant all American men, regardless of race, the right to patent their inventions. Women were not included in this intellectual-property protection.
Percy Lavon Julian — The chemist who synthesized hormones from plants
Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975) was born in Montgomery, Alabama, the son of a railway mail clerk and the grandson of enslaved people. He was accepted at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, as a sub-freshman, meaning that he had to take high-school courses concurrently with his freshman courses. Majoring in chemistry, he graduated as valedictorian of his class in 1920.
After graduation he taught chemistry at Fisk University for two years before winning an Austin Fellowship to Harvard University, where he completed a master’s degree in organic chemistry. After Harvard he returned to teaching at West Virginia State College and Howard University. He was a research chemist and pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants, such as cortisone, steroids and birth control pills.
In the 1930s chemists recognized the structural similarity of a large group of natural substances — the steroids. These include the sex hormones and the cortical hormones of the adrenal glands. The medicinal potential of these compounds was clear, but extracting sufficient quantities of them virtually impossible. He was inducted into the National Academy of the Sciences, National Inventors Hall of Fame and the American Chemical Society for his lasting work. Throughout his life he was socially active in groups seeking to advance conditions for African Americans, helping to found the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of Chicago and serving on the boards of several other organizations and universities.
Frederick McKinley Jones — Inventor
Frederick McKinley Jones (1893-1961) may have invented one of the most important things for modern agriculture: the refrigerated truck. Patented in the 1940s, the system was installed in trucks, boats, planes, and trains, which allowed perishable foods to be transported long distances and overseas. The concept of frozen foods and the cold sections in supermarkets are based off his ideas.
Jones was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on May 17, 1893, to a white father and Black mother. His mother deserted him when he was a young child. His father struggled to raise him on his own. His childhood was a challenging time. Jones had talent for and an interest in mechanics. He read extensively on the subject in addition to his daily work, and educated himself in his spare time. By the time he was 20, Jones was able to secure an engineering license in Minnesota. He served in the U.S. Army during World War I where he was often called upon to make repairs to machines and other equipment. After the war, he returned to the farm.
Jones was also self-taught in electronics. When the town decided to fund a new radio station, Jones built the transmitter needed to broadcast its programming. He also developed a device to combine moving pictures with sound. Over the course of his career, Jones received more than 60 patents. While the majority pertained to refrigeration technologies, others related to X-ray machines, engines, and sound equipment.
Jones was recognized for his achievements both during his lifetime and after his death. In 1944, he became the first African American elected to the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush awarded the National Medal of Technology posthumously to Jones, presenting the awards to his widow at a ceremony held in the White House Rose Garden. Jones was the first African American to receive the award.
Marie Maynard Daly — Chemist and mentor
Marie Maynard Daly (1921-2003) was the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry from Columbia University in 1947 in the United States. Prior to that, she attended Queens College in Flushing, New York, where she graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry. The college offered her a fellowship to pursue graduate studies in chemistry at New York University while working part-time as a laboratory assistant at Queens College. In just one year she completed her master’s degree.
Daly worked closely with scientist Dr. Quentin B. Deming and their work opened up a new understanding of how foods and diet can affect the health of the heart and the circulatory system. After receiving her Ph.D., she held an instructor position at Howard University for two years and began research on the composition and metabolism of components in the cell nucleus. Daly’s early research included studies of the effects of cholesterol on the mechanics of the heart, the effects of sugars and other nutrients on the health of arteries, and the breakdown of the circulatory system as a result of advanced age or hypertension. Later she studied how proteins are produced and organized in the cell. Later in her career, Daly developed programs to increase the number of minorities in medical schools and graduate science programs.