The History Department Presents the Thom Gentle Lecture on Environmental History
Bernadette Jeanne Pérez
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
What can the sugar beet industry tell us about the relationship between agricultural science, capitalism, and American settler colonialism? In this talk, Pérez draws upon turn of the twentieth century beet sugar manuals, which drew upon ideas of heredity and evolution, and mid-twentieth century industry histories, which narrated industry founders as heroic pioneers, to reveal that efforts to breed stronger and healthier sugar beets were part of a broader vision to erase the history of Indigenous peoples, subjugate non-white workers, and construct white American exceptionalism. Between 1870 and 1945, over 160 beet sugar factories opened in rural American towns from Michigan to the Pacific Coast. Hoping to cash in on a crop then touted as “white gold,” landowners allocated millions of acres to beets to feed their local factories. Efforts to dominate and domesticate nature were inseparable from global histories of colonialism, race, and Manifest Destiny.
Bernadette Pérez is a PhD Candidate in US history at the University of Minnesota. Her dissertation, ““Before the Sun Rises: Contesting Power and Cultivating Nations in Colorado Beet Fields, 1900-1945,” is a social, cultural, environmental, and labor history of diverse migrant workers in the sugar beet industry. Her research has been supported by the Mellon Foundation, the University of Minnesota’s Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change, the Organization of American Historian’s Huggins Quarles Award, and the Western History Association’s Sara Jackson Award.