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Roots of Change
History of African-Americans in Agriculture

Dr. Owusu Bandele
Dr. Owusu Bandele
The relationship between people of African descent and agriculture has been and continues to be a profound one. Africans were the first to domesticate both crops and livestock and the first to utilize irrigation. Indeed, enslaved Africans who came to America brought with them a wealth of technical agricultural knowledge. The number of African American farmers has declined from close to a million in 1920 to an estimated 29,000 today. Reasons for this decline are numerous and include migration off the farm, lack of profitability of agronomic crops, and discrimination and/or neglect from governmental agencies However, those that remain continue to build on a rich agricultural heritage.

The founding or opening of historically black 1890 Land Grant Universities and Tuskegee University was very significant. These institutions were established to provide technical training to African American farmers as well higher education opportunities for African Americans in the segregated south.
With limited resources themselves, the 1890 Universities have been crucial in serving limited resource farmers, particularly African Americans. Two agricultural professors/scientists that exemplify creative excellence in service to family farms are George Washington Carver and Booker T. Whatley. Many of us are aware of some of the contributions of George Washington Carver in finding numerous uses for peanuts and sweet potatoes. However, Carver is not given the credit that he deserves for helping to lay the basis of today's sustainable agriculture movement. Carver advocated composting, crop diversification and rotation, use of cover crops and finding alternatives to the unsustainable monocultural production of cotton. George DeVault, former editor of Rodale's New Farm magazine, had this to say about Dr. Booker T. Whatley: "Whatley's ideas on diversification, year-round cash flow and direct marketing of high-value crops are still the most sensible, practical - and profitable - advice to come from a university scientist since George Washington Carver." Black and white farmers throughout the south adopted Carver and Whatley's ideas and crop selections.

Agricultural Resource Calendar coverThere are numerous agriculturally related inventions contributed by African American scientists. Benjamin Banneker, noted for his invention of an all-wooden clock and for helping lay out Washington, D.C, also published a Farmers' Almanac from 1792 to 1797. G.W. Murray patented planters, cultivators, and fertilizer distributors during the 1890's. Leonard Julien, aided by his brother Harold, obtained a patent for a sugar cane planter in 1966 that revolutionized planting of that crop (see July picture - Agricultural Resource Calendar). In 1846, Norbert Rillieux patented a sugar-refining machine, another revolutionary invention. Frederick Jones received a patent for a refrigerated truck in 1949 that facilitated shipment of produce over distances without spoilage. African American inventors also patented a lawn mower, lawn sprinkler, potato digger, lemon squeezer and eggbeater.

The cultural influence of agriculture is manifested in poems, songs, literature and holidays. Kwanzaa is a holiday of African American origin that is based on African celebrations of harvest. It is celebrated by people of African descent throughout the world. The Freedom Garden at the River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville, Louisiana has creatively linked agriculture, history and culture. The Southern University Ag Center assisted with its establishment in 2007. The Freedom Garden is a part of the National Underground Railroad Initiative and it depicts crops that were introduced to this country by Africans (watermelon, okra, sesame, southern peas) as well as plants that runaway slaves could have consumed for food and medicinal reasons during their journeys on the Underground Railroad.

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