This archived article was written by: Carlie Miller
I remember loving peanut butter when I was little, though I could never eat just a plain spoonful of it. Recently, I have come to love peanut butter again and have it every week whether on apples, celery, bananas or in the form of good ol’ “PB&J.” While eating a peanut butter and banana sandwich one day for lunch, I realized it was Black History Month (I had a little help from a childhood favorite – the Disney movie “The Color of Friendship” which was on that day). This struck me as ironic: I was eating peanut butter in February.
February is called Black History Month (at least in the United States and Canada, the United Kingdoms celebrates Black History in October) because in 1926, Carter G. Woodson, a U.S. historian, chose the second week of February as “Negro History Week” in remembrance of events and essential figures in the international movement of African culture and the fight for rights in new lands.
The second week of February was selected because it contained the birthdays of two important Americans who shaped the lives of African Americans – President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The founding of Black History Month was important in the U.S. because it inspired an “exploration” into black history (the study of black history was practically nonexistent until this point).
So what does peanut butter have to do with Black History Month? One of America’s greatest minds created over 205 different uses for peanuts and Time magazine dubbed him the “Black Leonardo.” George Washington Carver was an inventor, botanist, activist, painter, educator and had many more titles and professions (probably almost as many as his uses for peanuts). He researched and heightened the development of crop rotation in the South.
Poor farmers, who would grow only one crop which was usually cotton, had a hard time growing crops year after year because it would deplete the soil of nutrients needed for good, healthy plants. Also, insects would frequently wipeout a whole year’s worth of cotton. Carver wanted the farmers to rotate cotton with crops that would put nutrients back into the soil such as sweet potatoes, soybeans and peanuts.
To convince farmers that peanuts were stable crops (peanuts were considered good only for pig feed), he published pamphlets for farmers which contained over 105 edible uses for peanuts (such as peanut butter, chocolate covered peanuts, peanut flour, peanut ice cream, peanut punch, and so on) and 100 domestic uses (dyes, paints, cosmetics, gasoline and even nitroglycerin which was later used by Alfred Nobel to create dynamite).
Peanuts soon became a popular cash crop in the South and Carver became a trusted man of the farmers. Because of his popularity with the Southerners, which was amazing considering that African-Americans were still treated poorly, Carver was able to travel the states speaking at farming conventions, universities and was even asked to speak to the U.S. Congress. He was mocked by Southern congressmen until he began to speak and though he was only given 10 minutes of presentation, Congress urged him to continue well past his time limit.
Carver used these invitations to bring up the crucial topic of racial equality wherever he went and spent much of his time teaching former slaves farming techniques and even organized and taught in some schools for African-Americans.
Carver became one of America’s most respected citizens and was sought after for advice from businesspeople and called upon by presidents, the Crown Prince of Sweden even came to study with Carver for a month. He was inducted into the Royal Society of Arts in England though few Americans were given that honor, was awarded the Springarn Medal from the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), received an honorary doctorate from Simpson College and was given the Roosevelt Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Southern Agriculture.
Carver founded the George Washington Carver Foundation, a George Washington Carver Museum was dedicated at Tuskegee Institute (were he was asked to operate the Agriculture Department) and his good friend Henry Ford dedicated the George Washington Carver Laboratory in Dearborn.
In 1943, only months after Carver’s death, Congress decided to establish a national monument dedicated to Carver. Despite WWII and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s order that all non-war expenditures were prohibited, the first African-American and non-presidential monument was dedicated in Diamond Missouri by FDR himself. Through the years, Carver has been elected into Halls of Fame, added to lists of great Americans and has had many schools, gardens and laboratories named after him.
So now you know what peanut butter and February have in common and what they symbolize in our great American history.