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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6 thoughts on “Little Known Black History Fact: Eli Whitney

  1. Was never taught that Whitney was white, but I was told in college that the inventor was likely black (necessity being the mother of invention) but because blacks couldn’t receive patents, Eli Whitney got the credit (and the money)

  2. Yes Eli Whitney, was very white. However, he did not create the cotton gin. One of Eli’s slaves named “Sam” created it. Of course, in those days, often slaves were not given the dignity of being referred to with last names. This included many official documents. If they needed to be referenced on documents, their first name was given along with “Own By: Mr. Eveel White”, for example.

    Numerous slaves made great inventions to decrease their burden, but their wicked white owners often took credit for their creations, as the slaves were still considered 3/5 human.

    • Virginia on said:

      That’s what I recall. That a slave, not necessarily Eli Whitney’s slave, invented the cotton gin. Slave owners and non-slave owners were notorious for becoming rich on the inventiveness and inspirations of blacks. The most visible one in modern times is what they’ve done with “black” music. I recall back in the day, white musicians sitting in the back of black theaters and clubs secretly writing down musical notes and lyrics, AND comedians writing down jokes from black shows. Some like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis were quite open about it.
      So, the notion that slaves invented labor saving devices (and recipes) that were copied by whites, is no doubt absolutely true.

    • Rawlins on said:

      Thanks for clearing up misleading information in this article. I was never taught Eli Whitney was Black. When did this happen? I always knew it was a Black man (slave) and it’s even written in a small “blurb” in our Texas history books as such. However, as a teacher I make sure to emphasize the contributions of the skaves and their inventions.

      • ItHappenedToMe on said:

        Mr. Rawlins,

        I was taught in school by white teachers that Whitney was Black.There’s even a video out there decrying Whitney’s whiteness and other examples that many students such as myself were misled, possibly unintentionally. The article clearly states how the confusion began for many.

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