Every year during U.S. Black History Month, our agriculture community highlights the important contributions of George Washington Carver—and he deserves it. Carver’s accomplishments changed the way we farm. Yet, Carver is one of only a handful of well-known Black American inventors. This time of year, we rarely interrogate the dearth of Black food and farm innovators over the past century—which doesn’t make sense given Black history.
For hundreds of years, enslaved Black people farmed soil to build the prosperous foundation of today’s American agriculture economy. Upon being freed, Black Americans continued to farm as wage workers, sharecroppers, and eventually landowners.
“By the turn of the 20th century, former slaves and their descendants had amassed 14 million acres of land. Black agriculture was a powerhouse; per capita there were more Black farmers than white farmers,” Brian Barth wrote in Modern Farmer. Black inventors like Carver, George W. Murray and Henry Blair thrived and developed farming techniques and tools that are foundational for the work that is achieved today.
Over time, the land tilled and nourished by Black Americans was systematically seized, they were actively prevented from purchasing land, or they were otherwise pushed out of farming.
For example, the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 was established to set aside land for the purpose of universities advancing agricultural and mechanical education. By 1889, receiving that funding became conditional upon racial integration. Many states found a way around integration by creating Blacks-only colleges and universities—some that you may have heard of like Alabama A&M University, North Carolina A&T State University, and Florida A&M University—these institutions and students were given significantly fewer resources.
Due to decades of similar policies, the rich history of farming in Black communities was steadily diminished. Today, only 2% of Americans are farmers—of that slim figure, only 1.4% identify as Black or mixed race according to McKinsey. Agriculture and agricultural research now primarily take place in predominantly white spaces like Cornell, Harvard, University of Florida, and Texas A&M.
It’s unfortunate because farming literally thrives on diversity; plants need both rain and sunlight, both wind and stillness. Diversity is why cover crops are important to soil health. In that same vein, the industry itself needs diversity.
McKinsey found that increasing access to farming is a viable means of addressing the racial wealth gap. “Black farm owners argue that possessing land enables them to be their own boss, grow their own food, and live on property they control,” writes Nadra Nittle in Eater. Not to mention the resources all these changes could bring to research and advancement in Black food culture. For example, improving cowpeas, watermelon, and okra to also survive climate change—foods Black Americans still eat today that go back to the cross-Atlantic slave trade. Ultimately, expanding farming to back into Black communities will increase economic activity, creativity, and innovation in the field today as it did in the late 1800s.
The USDA has publicly acknowledged their role in exacerbating inequities, and they are slowly trying to make amends. Last July, they announced a commitment of $21.8 million to Historically Black Land-grant Colleges and Universities.
“As USDA continues to work tirelessly to advance equity and provide greater access to nutritious and safe food for all Americans, especially to historically disadvantaged groups, this investment will strengthen the ability of our Land-grant Institutions to deliver innovative solutions that address emerging agricultural challenges impacting diverse communities,” said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, “We are pleased to be able to build the research and training capacity of these critical institutions as they develop the next generation of leaders in agriculture.”
This is a great first step. With high admission rates, supportive learning environments, and lower attendance costs, HBCUs are one of most critical tools for bringing Black Americans back into farming and agricultural research.
There is still a lot of systemic work to be done to help foster the next generation of George Washington Carvers. However, with time, we will have numerous brilliant Black minds to choose from when we talk about agricultural contributions during Black History Month.