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LuEsther T. Mertz Library
Plant & Research Guides

Black Botany: The Nature of Black Experience (2020): The Peanut Plant and a Black Genius

Black Botany: The Nature of Black Experience seeks to acknowledge the complex relationship between enslaved Black people, nature and the colonial environment and reconsider the conscious omission of Black knowledge of the natural world.

The Peanut Plant and a Black Genius

The peanut is a legume, not a nut. Legumes are flowering plants that bear seeds in pods and have round growths on their roots, called nodules.

Synonymous with the peanut plant is George Washington Carver. Carver’s legacy, however, is complex and cannot be reduced to a single plant. Born into enslavement in 1866 in Missouri, he would become one of the most prominent African-American and enigmatic agricultural scientists in the United States. He was a Black scientist who attended white schools and who was friends with some of the most powerful men in America.

So why the peanut? In Reconstruction Era America, African-Americans struggled to make a living across the rural South. As an agriculturalist, Carver developed hundreds of products using soybeans, peanut, and sweet potato to enable poor Black farmers to revitalize soils depleted of nutrients by cotton crops.

Carver’s celebrity did not prevent him from being misrepresented in the public eye for diverse political agendas. On the one hand, for Black Americans Carver was proof of the value of education. On the other hand, many white Americans argued that Carver was proof that Black people could prosper without actively changing the underlying social structure. Carver, as a scientist and artist, remained focused on enabling Black Americans to succeed.

Arachis hypogaea

Trew, Christoph Jacob (1695-1769)

Plantae rariores

Nuremberg : Christiani de Lavnoy, 1763.

 

[George Washington Carver, the painter]

From McMurry, L.O. George Washington Carver, scientist and symbol.

New York, NY: Oxford University Press (1981).

 

[George Washington Carver in his lab]

From Holt, R. George Washington Carver; an

American Biography.

Nashville. NY: Abingdon Press (1963).