Sweet Potatoes: A Historical Overview

Sweet Potatoes Sold Locally

Sweet potatoes are deeply rooted in Black culture and food. Over the past couple of years, sweet potatoes have become more popular due to their health benefits that white potatoes don’t have. Sweet potatoes are high in fiber, vitamin C, potassium, vitamin B5, vitamin B3, vitamin B6 and vitamin A. They also help to support digestive and heart health, boost your immunity and stabilize blood sugar.

Sweet potatoes are a member of the morning glory family. They are native to Central and South America where they’ve been eaten for over 5,000 years. Early Polynesians who traveled to South America are the reason it spread to their homelands, Hawaii and New Zealand. In the 1500s, Columbus brought them back to Spain (where more types were cultivated by the mid-1600s), and they then spread all over Europe. Sweet potatoes were introduced to the U.S. by 1648, being cultivated in Virginia. Following this sweet potatoes migrated north and south. Native Americans grew sweet potatoes extensively by the 1700s. Ultimately, sweet potatoes became a staple in the South. George Washington Carver, a famous Black scientist and inventor, created over 125 products using sweet potatoes including dyes, candies, breakfast foods, starches, flours, molasses, etc.

Often on Thanksgiving dinner tables, you’ll find pumpkin pie, but the story is different for Black families. There, you’ll often find sweet potato pie, the counterpart to pumpkin pie. But this all started centuries ago. In the 16th century, when Spanish traders shipped sweet potatoes, they used two different routes: one to Western Europe and one to West Africa. There, West African cooks experimented with sweet potatoes as an alternative to cassava, plantains and yams. They were used to make a starch that was then served with a savory sauce, soup or stew, along with fish and vegetables. They have also been used in fufu which is made from a root (such as cassava or yams) being pounded and mashed.

When the ship got to England, royalty started having sweet potato tarts on their dessert tables. Plantations in the South started following the latest dessert trends from England, so sweet potatoes made their way to their dessert tables as well. Enslaved people were the chefs making these desserts, so it was through them that sweet potatoes and sweet potato pie were deeply ingrained in Black culture. So, as millions of enslaved people were freed/escaped, they took their love of sweet potatoes with them.

In conclusion, sweet potatoes have many vitamins and health benefits that white potatoes don’t have. Sweet potatoes originated in Central and South America, spread to Polynesia, Hawaii, New Zealand and Spain. Next, they were shipped to West Africa and Western Europe. Lastly, English royalty had sweet potato tarts and wealthy plantations in the South followed their lead. Then, enslaved people made their mark on sweet potatoes. This Thanksgiving, instead of having the pumpkin pie you always have, you should give sweet potato pie a try.