Whitney covers Black History Month in Agriculture

Whitney Winter, Staff Writer

In light of February being the celebration of Black history in the U.S., let me compile a few of the notable African Americans (AA) that have changed the agriculture industry.

A few noteworthy individuals in agriculture include: George Washington Carver, Percy Lavon Julian and John W. Mitchell.

George Washington Carver

Carver was born into slavery in 1864 during the Civil War. According to History.com, at a young age Carver took an interest in plants and did experiments with natural pesticides, fungicides and soil conditioners because he was too frail and sickly to work in the fields. The local farmers coined his nickname of “the plant doctor.”

He later was sent to an all-Black school near his hometown in Missouri where he was taken in by an AA couple with no children and the midwife and nurse taught him about medical herbs. He moved around the Midwest and put himself through school by surviving off of his domestic skills. He eventually graduated from Minneapolis High School in Kansas. In the late 1880s, Carver attended Simpson College but a professor encouraged him to study botany at the Iowa State Agriculture School (now Iowa State University).

According to History.com, “In 1894, Carver became the first African American to earn a bachelor of science degree.” Two years later he earned his master of agriculture degree and received several offers of post-college careers but the offer Carver eventually took came from Booker T. Washington from Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). Carver would later run Tuskegee’s agriculture school on the not that the university’s trustees keep its all-Black faculty. Carver, a scientist and professor, ended up working at the institute for the remainder of his life.

He created a horse-drawn wagon, the Jessup Wagon, to allow him to teach soil chemistry outside of the classroom in a mobile fashion.

His contribution to agriculture extended his laboratory work and into his idea of crop rotation. Since cotton had depleted nutrients from the soil so he suggested farmers plant nitrogen-fixing crops like peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes to restore the soil’s yielding potential.

Since the adoption of crop rotation techniques, the community had a surplus of peanuts and other non-cotton products so Carver found alternative uses of these products. According to History.com, by-products included flour and vinegar from sweet potatoes, as well as, nonedible products like stains, dyes, paints, and ink. Carver became known as “The Peanut Man” after developing 300+ products from peanuts. Products included milk, Worcestershire, cooking oil, paper, soaps, wood stain and peanut-based medicines like antiseptics and laxatives.

Carver lived a life full of agricultural advancements and after his death on Jan 5, 1943, received a monument in dedication to his achievements and “was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame” (History.com). The George Washington Carver National Monument is located in Diamond, Missouri.

Percy Lavon Julian

Julian, born in 1899, is known for his achievement of synthesizing important medical compounds from plant sources and made them more affordable to the public by mass-production. According to Science History.org, he was a steroid chemist and entrepreneur who was part of the team of scientists that synthesized steroids from plants which allowed the scientific community to mass produce sex hormones and cortical hormones.

After receiving his master’s degree in organic chemistry in Harvard University he traveled to Vienna, Austria to study for his doctorate in chemistry of medicinal plants. After receiving his doctorate his Viennese colleague, Josef Pikl, returned to Harvard University where “they accomplished the first total synthesis of physostigmine, the active principle of the Calabar bean used since the end of the 19th century to treat glaucoma” (ScienceHistory.org).

From there, Julian continued research and as a by-product from physostigmine synthesis from soybeans, he obtained the steroid stigmasterol which can be used in the synthesis of female sex hormone, progesterone. With this revolution, Julian contacted the Glidden in Chicago to get his hands on their soybean oil. He eventually ended up as the director of research and was hired to figure out new products mad from soybeans.

His next scientific finding started as an accident in the Glidden plant when water leaked into the purified soybean oil. This produced a solid white mass which ended up being stigmasterol, so Julian figured out how to mass produce synthesized progesterone from the stigmasterol. According to ScienceHistory.org, Julian also synthesized cortisone, which had “remarkable effects on rheumatoid arthritis,” inexpensively. After his time at Glidden, he founded his company, Julian Laboratories and was located in Franklin Park, Illinois, and Mexico City.

John W. Mitchell

Mitchell, born in 1886, is well known for his work as a pioneering AA extension agent and educator in North Carolina. According to North Carolina University Libraries, he earned a bachelor of science in agriculture from Agricultural and Mechanical College for The Colored Race (now North Carolina A&T State University) and studied sociology at Indiana Central University in Indianapolis (now University of Indianapolis).

In 1917, he began as an extension agent and served Bladen, Columbus and Pasquotank counties in North Carolina. Five years later he directed the extension office on the A&T campus in Greensboro and was in charge of 15 counties. According to NCU Libraries, “(d)uring this time he is said to have built one of the larges Negro 4-H Clubs in the nation.” In 1940, he was the “State Agent for Negro Work” for African Americans in the entire state.

Three years later, Mitchell moved to Virginia to be the field agent for 17 southeastern states. After World War II, 4-H membership soared. According to NCU Libraries, he “served as Director of Regional Club camps for Negro boys and girls” in addition to several other roles in the extension field.

He received an honorary degree of doctor of humanities from Livingston College in 1950 for his work of improving rural life of southern farmers. According to NCU Libraries, Mitchell was appointed as “National Extension Leader on the staff of the Division of the Department of Cooperative Extension Work, the highest rank ever given up to that time to a person of color within the national extension organization.”

After his death in 1955, several organizations honored his legacy. In 1956 , in Onslow County in North Carolina the J.W. Mitchell 4-H Camp was dedicated in his memory. He was posthumously inducted into the A&T School of Agriculture in North Carolina Hall of Fame in 1996.