Capitol Hill Garden Club In Washington, D.C., Since 1952

The Pepper in your Pot, 400 Years of African American Sowing and Growing

November 11, 2014 5:30 PM | Anonymous member

The Pepper In Your Pot

400 Years of African American Sowing and Growing

Our featured speaker was Michael Twitty .

Michael Twitty captivated and educated us with information about the history of plant introduction and cultivation in our gardens. The multicultural makeup of the United States enriched and influenced agriculture and horticulture enormously. A case in point is the planting history of the south, with its large number of Africans, both enslaved and free, Native Americans, and Europeans. During the 17th – 19th centuries, African and European food and cash crops were successful introduced and cultivated along side of indigenous American plants.

According to Mr. Twitty, prior to European exploration, there were crop exchanges between people on the American and African continents. By the time that the Portuguese and Spanish sailed down the coast of west Africa in the 16th century, they brought some heat loving plants like bananas and found Africans already familiar with them. Other plants and herbs came to Africa via west Asia. These travel patterns afforded Africans, especially coastal communities, with expertise about the cultivation of many plants.

Although a popular belief holds that Africans brought seeds of familiar plantsundefinedokra, peppers, benne, cowpeas, and many othersundefinedentangled in their hair during middle passage, Mr. Twitty corrected the record. Many crops introduced from Africa were the preferred food of enslaved people, and fed to them by their captors so that they would arrive at U.S. slave markets in reasonable enough physical shape to fetch a good price.

Warm weather agricultural crops, such as rice, cotton, indigo, and sorghum, were regularly grown in parts of the African continent. To make a success of their New World plantations, many owners sought enslaved Africans with expertise in growing these crops. It is not unusual to find African Americans in a particular locality who can trace their ancestry back to a particular region in Africa that has a history of growing the same crop. For example, Mr. Twitty traces has traced his own history seven generations back to people from the rice growing area of Sierra Leone who were brought to a rice growing region of the US.

As the colonial African American population grew, some of those escaped farms and plantations, settled near or with Native Americans in areas outside of the colonial control. They shared seeds and knowledge of how to grow themundefinedcorn, rice, sweet potatoes, cow peas, etc. – adding yet another dimension to the diversity to American agriculture and horticulture.

According to Mr. Twitty, another important tradition brought from Africa was the small farmer’s market. Both free and enslaved Africans grew vegetables and herbs in small home plots. Those with more than enough food for their personal sustenance sold vegetables to the public. Some prolific gardeners were even able to save enough money to buy their freedom. Although these markets dwindled in the Untied States, the tradition still flourishes in Africa.

Another common practice on 18th and 19th century farms was to hire or indenture a knowledgeable European to establish or oversee farming practices. Once the enslaved Africans mastered those practices, Europeans were no longer needed for that purpose.

According to Mr. Twitty, African Americans also added their knowledge and skill to the growing of herbs and flowers, the grafting of fruit and nut trees, and animal husbandry. In his closing remarks, Mr. Twitty again emphasized how many cultures have contributed to the our American gardens and urged us to learn about and celebrate them all.

Michael is a food writer, independent scholar, culinary historian, and historical interpreter personally charged with preparing, preserving and promoting African American foodways and its parent traditions in Africa and her Diaspora and its legacy in the food culture of the American South.

Michael also authors a food blog, Afroculinaria, which features issues of culinary justice each month on he's website,

In 2016, look for Michael's book, The Cooking Gene.

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