Message from the Acting Deputy Secretary in Recognition of Black History Month

As the nation celebrates Black History Month, I want to take the opportunity to recognize the remarkable contributions made by African Americans to the agriculture profession and to our country as a whole.

As a botanist, I have a special appreciation for the amazing contributions of George Washington Carver, the renowned botanist and inventor, yet he is but one member of a stellar group of Americans of African descent whose research forever changed our lives for the better. As many people know, Professor Carver used his knowledge to teach farmers and students about new uses for crops like peas, sweet potatoes, and peanuts. Born into slavery in the 1860s, he was known from a young age as “the plant doctor” due to his extensive knowledge of the uses and potential for food crops. He championed crop rotation and used soy plantings to replace nitrogen in depleted soil. Professor Carver’s knowledge of agricultural science resulted in a legacy that led to a healthier American population, and his innovative work to increase the uses of peanut crops—by using them to create products like ink, paper, soap, paints, and antiseptics—is credited with saving the agricultural economy of the southern United States. We all continue to benefit from his work today.

George Washington Carver is just one of a great number of African Americans who improved the country and the world. Others include Madeline M. Turner, who invented the first fruit press, allowing users to push fruit into an opening where it was sliced, then shifted between plates until it was juiced in a manner described like that of an assembly line. A U.S. patent review committee member called her invention “ingenious.” This complex engineering feat, essentially a self-contained assembly line, foreshadowed machines used in the food industry today. There were many others, including Lloyd August Hall, who developed innovative food preservation techniques; Norbert Rillieux, who invented a means of evaporating water that led to tremendous growth in the sugar industry; Booker T. Whatley, who pioneered Clientele Membership Clubs in the early 1980s, the forerunner of modern day Community Supported Agriculture; and Percy Julian, who discovered important uses for soybeans, including the creation of the substance used in fire extinguishers, saving countless lives.

Enough cannot be said about the contributions that these African Americans and others have made to enhance and improve the lives of all people, and I am happy for this opportunity to express our gratitude. Please join me in honoring the generous improvements they made to agriculture, the United States, and the world. While February is Black History Month, the work they and so many others like them have performed on our behalf deserves our recognition and thanks every month of the year.