February marks a month in which we honor and celebrate the history of African Americans and their standing in the evolution of our nation. These individuals have played a pivotal role in our country’s history, notably in the context of agriculture. It is no mystery that our current agricultural landscape has been influenced by the dark past of slavery and structural racism. In recent years, though, efforts towards equality for all and education for the ignorant have taken positive steps forward, with the ultimate goal of erasing the societal impediments long faced by African Americans. This is a month in which we recognize the role they have played, amidst the challenges they have faced during our nation’s rich agricultural history. There are many poignant African American figures that helped shape agriculture.
George Washington Carver is perhaps the most notable leader on this front. Throughout the late 1890s and early 1900s, Carver influenced the masses with his efforts to promote farming alternative crops to cotton, notably peanuts. Promoting the use of available resources as opposed to expensive commodities, Carver specialized in developing versatile uses for popular crops. He served as a powerful symbol of environmentalism. And, according to AG Daily, “His innovations in the field of crop rotation are considered breakthroughs in resource conservation.” These changes increased farm productivity while also preserving soil, setting a precedent for modern farming operations.
Another notable figure is John W. Mitchell. Mitchell traveled three counties, during a time in which automobiles were nonexistent, to organize the Eastern Columbus Credit Union. This union encouraged African American farmers to buy supplies in bulk in order to save money. Later during the late 1940s, he was appointed director of African American extension services of the South for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Percy Lavon Julian, an African American chemist, extensively researched soybeans. His findings uncovered new uses for the chemicals found in the plant including a protein that was used in fire extinguishers during World War II.
Henry Blair was known as the second African American to hold a U.S. patent. He invented and patented a corn planter which increased the efficiency of the farming process. Two years later, Blair claimed his second patent for a cotton planter which helped control weeds and distribute seeds efficiently.
Today, John W. Boyd Jr. is perhaps one of the most influential defenders of civil rights. In 1995, Boyd Jr. founded the National Black Farmers Association after experiencing USDA discrimination and meeting other Black Americans with shared experiences. Additionally, he helped enact a lawsuit against the USDA over their treatment of Black farmers. He has spent decades advocating for civil rights of minority farmers and even put influence into legislation.
As you can see, the impact of African Americans on modern day agricultural science has been substantial yet lightly acknowledged. These individuals provide only a few examples from a segment of the scientific community that has been long underappreciated. While Black History Month offers a great opportunity to give these American pioneers their long-overdue recognition, it also serves as a reminder that our nation’s rich agricultural history owes them a more permanent debt. Modern American agricultural science and its impact on our daily lives would not be what it is today without their contributions.