Every February in grade school, I learned and re-learned the limited histories of a handful of key figures. Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Garrett Morgan, Harriet Tubman, and Dr. George Washington Carver. It was rare that we heard about anyone else and if we did, we received trivia rather than histories.
“Who was the first Black major league baseball player?” (Jackie Robinson)
“Who was the first Black millionaire?” (Madame CJ Walker)
(For a more extensive famous firsts lists, click here)
The answers to these trivia questions have become embedded into my adult memory. Rosa Parks sat on the front of bus. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched for rights. Harriet Tubman freed slaves. Garret Morgan invented the traffic light and so on. However, these men and women did much more than that. Their extended biographies are not discussed until collegiate level African American studies, if at all.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. organized and spoke for both Labor and Civil Rights. The Poor People’s Campaign, planned near the end of Dr. King’s life, was intended to advocate for good jobs, healthcare, and housing for all Americans.
Each of the leaders mentioned have a deeper history than what is touched upon in common education.
For instance, Dr. George Washington Carver was a great scientist and inventor, but many people only associate him with the invention of peanut butter. Though Dr. Carver has done many great things, inventing peanut butter was not one of them.
Peanut butter is recorded as having existed as far back as 3000 years ago.
However, Dr. George Washington Carver did change (read: save) American agriculture by introducing crop rotation.
He did invent over 300 products using the peanut and over 115 products using the sweet potato.
These inventions included printer ink, synthetic rubber, material for paving highways, insulation board, and:
From the Peanut:
- 19 types of leather dyes
- 18 types of insulating boards
- 11 types of wall boards
- 17 types of wood stains
- 11 types of peanut flours
- 30 types of cloth dyes
- 50 types of food products
From the Sweet Potato:
- 73 types of dye
- 17 types of wood fillers
- 14 types of candy
- 5 types of library paste
- 5 types of breakfast foods
- 4 types of starches
- 4 types of flour
- 3 types of molasses
Dr. Carver also created over 500 different shades of paint, using extracts from the earth as well as research in manufacturing “paints and stains from soybeans”.
Dr. Carver is a perfect example of why we as parents and teachers should conduct further research on celebrated African American figures before we select our curriculum. I, too, am guilty of long associating Dr. Carver with peanut butter and could have easily passed down this unfairly abbreviated history to my son. It is our job as educators to dig deeper because we want our students to know full histories.
Also, we want our students to do the same, right? If we are going to continue teaching about the same central figures that were introduced to us in grade school, let us expand the lesson by adding a research dynamic. Let us challenge our students to teach us something that we did not know.
Our goal in this is to raise well-rounded scholars, not trivia champions on traffic lights and peanut butter.