Black innovators who reshaped American gardening and agriculture

The achievements of George Washington Carver, the 19th century scientist and alumnus of Iowa State University, credited with hundreds of inventions, including 300 uses for peanuts, landed him in American history textbooks.

But many other farming practices, innovations, and foods that traveled with West African slaves—or were developed by their descendants—remain unrecognized, despite revolutionizing the way we eat, grow, and farm. garden.

Among the medicinal and dietary staples introduced by the African diaspora were sorghum, millet, African rice, yams, black-eyed peas, watermelon, eggplant, okra, sesame and kola nut. , the extract of which was a main ingredient in the original Coca-Cola recipe. .

Commissioned by Iowa State University,

Whether captives smuggled seeds and plants aboard slave ships or captains bought them from Africa to plant in America, key elements of the West African diet also traveled along the Middle Passage to across the Atlantic.

After long days spent working in the fields of the plantation, many slaves cultivated their own gardens to supplement their meager rations.

“The plantation owners could then force them to show them how to grow these foods,” said Judith Carney, a geography professor at UCLA and co-author of “In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World” (University of California Press, 2011).

“These cultures would then become commodities,” said Carney, who has spent a decade tracing these food origins by reconciling oral history with written records.

It is therefore no coincidence that “many of the farming practices seen in Africa also happened in the South,” said Michael W. Twitty, food historian and award-winning author of “The Cooking Gene” (Amistad, 2017).

The George Washington Carver Museum in Austin, Texas.

Multi-cropping (growing different types of plants on the same plot), permaculture (mimicking natural ecosystems) and planting on mounds (arguably the precursor to berms) can be traced to African agricultural practices, said Twitty, who partnered with Colonial Williamsburg last year to establish the Sankofa Heritage Garden, a living replica of the type of garden cultivated by slaves at that time.

History has not recorded many inventions of enslaved Africans, largely because slave owners often claimed credit for them. Some, however, have been recognized, as have the achievements of many who followed them.

Here are some of the early black innovators whose contributions reshaped the agricultural landscape:

Henry Blair (1807-1860)

Only the second black man to be granted a U.S. patent (Thomas L. Jennings, who invented an early method of dry-cleaning clothes in 1821, would be the first), Blair designed a wheelbarrow-style corn drill to help farmers to sow seeds more efficiently. Two years later, he received a second patent for a mechanical horse-drawn cotton planter, which increased yield and productivity.

Details about the Maryland farmer and inventor’s personal life, including whether he was born into slavery, are scarce.

George Washington Carver (circa 1864-1943)

Agricultural scientist George Washington Carver photographed in New York on October 9, 1939.

Peanuts, believed to originate from South America, were brought to Spain by European explorers before heading to Africa. They then returned to the Western Hemisphere aboard slave ships in the 1700s. By the late 1800s, the legume had grown from a Southern regional crop to a crop of national appeal across the United States .

It was during this time that Carver, who was born into slavery in Missouri and freed as a child after the Civil War, earned a master’s degree from Iowa State Agricultural College.

As head of the agriculture program at the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama (now Tuskegee University), Carver became famous for his research into peanuts and invented hundreds of product versions. peanut products, including flour, coffee, Worcestershire sauce, beverages, chicken feed, soap, laxatives, shampoo, leather dye, paper, insecticide, linoleum and insulation.

He also devised alternative uses for other crops and is credited with discovering the soil rejuvenation benefits of compost and promoting crop rotation as a way to prevent soil nutrient depletion.

george washington carver

Frederick McKinley Jones (1893-1961)

With a background in electrical engineering, Jones is credited with many inventions – from a portable X-ray machine to a broadcast radio transmitter – but one in particular has had a drastic impact on the modern American diet: mobile refrigeration technology. .

Jones, who was born in Cincinnati and settled in Minnesota, developed a refrigeration system that was installed in trucks, train cars, airplanes and ships, enabling the safe transport of perishable goods in the whole world.

Booker T. Whatley (1915-2005)

An Alabama horticulturist and professor of agriculture at Tuskegee University, Whatley introduced the concept of “customer membership clubs” in the 1960s to help struggling black farmers, who were often denied loans and grants given to their white counterparts.

Farmers sold prepaid crates of their crops at the start of the season to ensure a guaranteed income. In many cases, customers harvested their own shares, which saved on labor costs.

Today’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and U-pick businesses grew directly out of Whatley’s ideas, as did, arguably, the farm-to-table and local consumption movements. .

Whatley has also pioneered sustainable agriculture and regenerative farming practices to maximize biodiversity and maintain healthy, productive soil. His manual “How to Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres” (?Regenerative Agricultural Assn. of Rodale Institute, 1987) is still considered an important resource for small farmers.

Edmund Albius (1829-1880)

Although not American, Albius, who was enslaved as a youth and living on the French colony island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean, is responsible for the global distribution of vanilla.

The plant had been brought from Mexico to Europe by explorer Hernán Cortés but did not produce beans there due to the lack of a specific pollinator bee native to Mexico.

A certain Ferréol Bellier-Beaumont, who lived in Reunion, had become the owner of Edmond and had taught him from an early age how to take care of his many plants. One of these lessons included instruction in hand pollination, the manual transfer of pollen from male flowers to female flowers to produce fruit.

In the 1840s, 12-year-old Edmond examined the flowers of the Bellier-Beaumont vanilla vine, which had been growing without yield for two decades, and observed that their male and female reproductive organs were not on separate flowers but contained in a single flower, separated by a flap-like membrane. He moved the flap and, below, spread the pollen from the stamen to the pistil. Before long, plants were producing beans.

Word spread and Reunion started growing vanilla and exporting it overseas. In 50 years, the island had overtaken Mexico in vanilla production. The Albius pollination technique reshaped the vanilla industry and remains in use around the world.

Jessica Damiano is an award-winning gardening writer, master gardener and educator. She writes The Weekly Dirt newsletter and creates an annual wall calendar of daily gardening tips. Send her a note at [email protected] and find her at and on Instagram @JesDamiano.

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