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Month: February 2023

Henry Blair

Henry Blair was born in Glen Ross, Maryland, in 1807. Blair was an African American farmer who patented two devices designed to help boost agricultural productivity. In so doing, he became the second African American to receive a United States patent.

He received his first patent — for a corn planter — on October 14, 1834. The planter resembled a wheelbarrow, with a compartment to hold the seed and rakes dragging behind to cover them. This device enabled farmers to plant their crops more efficiently and enable a greater total yield. Blair signed the patent with an “X,” indicating that he was illiterate.

Blair obtained his second patent, for a cotton planter, on August 31, 1836. This invention functioned by splitting the ground with two shovel-like blades pulled by a horse or other draft animal. A wheel-driven cylinder behind the blades deposited seed into the freshly plowed ground. One of the benefits of the machine was that it quickly and evenly distributed seeds while removing weeds.

Henry Blair's seed planter
 Library of Congress
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Dr. Marie Clark Taylor

Marie Clark Taylor was born in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania, on February 16, 1911. After graduating from Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. with honors in 1929, she earned her B.S.(1933) and M.S. (1935, Botany) at Howard University. A leader in STEM fields, Howard is ranked as the top producer of African-American undergraduates who later earn science and engineering doctoral degrees, according to the National Science Foundation.

She enrolled in the doctoral studies program at Fordham University, where she was a member of the Scientific Research Society’s Sigma Xi. In 1941, she became the first woman of any race to receive a scientific doctorate from Fordham when she received her Ph.D. in botany cum laude.

A teacher at heart, Taylor focused much of her career on improving science education. She developed summer programs for high school science teachers to learn new scientific techniques, methods and instruments. This program was so successful it was awarded numerous grants to expand. The summer programs were so successful that word reached President Lyndon B. Johnson, who enlisted Taylor to broaden the reach of the institutes, admitting teachers from not just the United States but overseas as well.

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George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver was born an enslaved person in the 1860s in Missouri. He was unable to work on the farm due to health reasons so instead, Susan Carver took him under her wing teaching him how to do work around the house, as well as how to concoct simple herbal medicines. Thus began his interest in plants, all before the age of 11 years old. He became known as “the plant doctor” to local farmers due to his ability to discern how to improve the health of their gardens, fields and orchards.

Carver traveled around and lived with many different families to pursue a better education. He graduated from Minneapolis High School in Minneapolis, Kansas, in 1880 and applied to Highland College in Kansas (today’s Highland Community College). He was initially accepted at the all-white college but was later rejected when the administration learned he was Black.

“Where there is no vision, there is no hope.”

George Washington Carver

Not to be deterred, Carver continued his journey to continue to his education and in 1894, he became the first African American to earn a Bachelor of Science degree. Impressed by Carver’s research on the fungal infections of soybean plants, his professors asked him to stay on for graduate studies.

Carver worked with famed mycologist (fungal scientist) L.H. Pammel at the Iowa State Experimental Station, honing his skills in identifying and treating plant diseases.

In 1894 he became the first Black person to graduate from Iowa State University, where he studied botany and fungal diseases. He went on to earn a Master of Science in bacterial botany and agriculture in 1896.

After completing graduate school Carver met Booker T. Washington and received an offer he could not refuse. The offer led Carver to become a professor and conduct research at Tuskegee University for decades. Booker T. Washington became such a strong mentor and influence in his life that he changed his name from George Carver to George Washington Carver.

He invented over 300 uses for the peanut and developed methods to prevent soil depletion. It was his ideas regarding crop rotation that proved to be most valuable. He was made a member British Royal Society of Arts — a rare honor for an American – and advised prominent leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and President Teddy Roosevelt on agriculture and nutrition

Soon after his death, his childhood home would be named a national monument — the first of its kind to honor a Black American. Carver was also posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

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Ash Richards

Ash Richards is the Urban Agriculture Director at Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, managing the Farm Philly Program and the City’s first Urban Agriculture Plan, Growing from the Root. Ash earned a Master’s Degree from the University of Pennsylvania in City and Regional Planning and has an educational background in geography and agroecology. They have served as a member of the Philadelphia Food Policy Advisory Council (FPAC) since 2013 and as the co-chair of the FPAC Urban Agriculture Sub-Committee since 2016.

Ash Richards received the SustainPHL #FuturePHL award in 2019.  Then in 2023, Ash was honored for advancing sustainable agriculture through innovation and collaboration by receiving a Pasabilities Award. Pasa Sustainable Agriculture is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with a mission to cultivate environmentally sound, economically viable, community-focused farms and food systems.

“Ash Richards led a democratic- and community-minded process to create the Urban Ag Strategic Plan that is not only an invaluable roadmap for Philadelphia but is a needed resource to many other aligned organizations. Pasa among them, these organizations and the people they serve benefit from the plan’s ability to address challenges and support urban growers and organizations in forwarding substantive change to historically inequitable systems.”

Pasa board member Jessica Moore

They have been a panelist at FITCITY PHL’s Design and the Opioid Crisis Conference (2018), a presenter at the American Planning Association (APA) Conference: Comprehensive Planning and Green
Stormwater Infrastructure (2018), a panelist at the Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange (GPLEX) Conference: Comprehensive Redevelopment in North Philadelphia (2017), and a panelist at the Philadelphia Free Library’s 21st Century Literacies Conference: Crossing the Food Desert Session (2016) to name a few recent appearances.

Richards’ work supports the self-reliance and determination of residents to grow and produce their own food and sits at the nexus of policy, planning, public services/goods and civic engagement.

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Dr. Booker T. Whatley

Dr. Booker T. Whatley grew up seeing the number of black farms declining and the remaining ones struggling to compete with industrialized agriculture. Whatley was an advocate for regenerative agriculture, among other environmentalist practices. At the height of the civil rights movement, he began counseling the Black farmers who were deeply engaged in that struggle.

This led him to pursue a degree in agricultural studies at Alabama A&M University, gaining knowledge that helped him serve in the Korean War where he operated a 55-acre hydroponic farm to provide food for the troops. Upon his return from the war he got his doctorate in horticulture and became a professor at Tuskegee University.

Whatley introduced the concept of “clientele membership clubs” in the 1960s to help struggling Black farmers, who often were denied the loans and grants afforded to their white counterparts. The farmers would sell pre-paid boxes of their crops at the beginning of the season to ensure a guaranteed income. In many instances, customers would harvest their shares themselves, which saved on labor costs.

Today’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) and U-Pick farming enterprises grew directly from Whatley’s ideas, as, it can be argued, did the farm-to-table and eat-local movements.

In June 2021, the Kellogg Company created a series honoring food pioneers and featured Dr. Whatley in this series.

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