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Eli Whitney, who is credited for patenting the cotton gin machine on this day in 1794, became a topic of discussion at the top of this year’s Black History Month. Although the farmer and inventor was depicted as a Black man to some students, in fact, Whitney was a white man.

Born December 8, 1765 in Massachusetts, Whitney was part of a wealthy farming family. A Yale University graduate, Whitney traveled south to Georgia like many New Englanders did to develop new business ventures. Slavery and cotton-picking was the order of the day and Whitney saw opportunity to increase production of the valuable product.

The cotton gin separates the cotton fiber inside the bolls in a much faster fashion. In comparison to the manual method, Whitney’s mechanical application of pulling fiber could yield over 50 pounds per day.

This was a revelation to the industry that made slave labor much more profitable, expanding slave states from 8 to 15 and adding five times more slaves to the existing population. Cotton’s profitability escalated tensions between the North and South and was among the main reasons for the Civil War.

Writer Rembert Browne tweeted on the first day of this year’s BHM that many students have incorrectly been taught that Whitney was Black, some folks were astounded.

 

A Slate article pointed out that the belief was widespread due to Whitney’s inclusion in many Black history displays in classrooms and the fact that his invention was so closely associated with the institution of slavery.

The cotton gin may have extended the spread of slavery in the South but did not make Whitney rich as other inventors copied the device and made significant improvements. Whitney created other inventions, including machines to help him with prostate cancer, which ended his life in 1825.

Yale named a non-traditional students admission program after him.

PHOTO: Public Domain

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