On Feb. 24, the 151st anniversary of the founding of our college, CAFNR recognized Henry Kirklin, a celebrated Black farmer and educator who lived in and around Columbia from 1858 until his death in 1938, with the naming of the Henry Kirklin Plant Sciences Learning Laboratory, and the establishment of a scholarship for underrepresented minority students studying plant sciences, in his honor. Nearly a dozen of Kirklin’s descendants were in virtual attendance as leadership of MU and CAFNR, along with city leaders, dedicated the lab, which recognizes the man believed to have been the first Black teacher at the University of Missouri.
A featured speaker at the event was Maya Puller, a senior in plant sciences, who shared the importance of recognizing Mr. Kirklin and his legacy in CAFNR.
“He paved the way for people who look like me,” she said during the dedication ceremony. “He paved the way for people who are not Black, but are minorities, and have had a difference in education because of that. It is because of men and women like Mr. Kirklin, fighting for the rights to an education that was on par with that of their White counterparts, that I am able to walk the graduation stage this upcoming December and seek a higher education back in my home state of Texas.
“This lab, in my opinion, is a great start to honoring a man who has done so much for this university simply by wanting to learn and share his knowledge with others, at a time when it was frowned upon because of the color of his skin. And it is my hope that with new additions to the plant sciences facilities, such as this, that we can attract young and talented Black minds to this program.”
Kirklin was born into slavery in 1858 on a farm east of Columbia and was freed by the age of 5. According to the State Historical Society of Missouri, Joseph Douglass, a local greenhouse and nursery owner with ties to MU, hired a teenaged Kirklin to work at his business, a job that eventually turned into a position at MU’s horticulture department as a greenhouse supervisor and gardener. Kirklin’s skills at managing plants were striking, and he was quickly given the role of teaching students practical gardening skills. During Kirklin’s lifetime, the university prevented Black people from holding official teaching positions. Kirklin taught in an unofficial capacity in the horticulture department, where he educated students on how to prune and graft plants.
The new lab, in 3-35 Agriculture Building, features a series of digital displays that can be connected to microscopes to display detailed images of plant cells to the entire class, part of a suite of state-of-the-art technology that allows plant sciences students to perform a variety of hands-on tasks without leaving the lab.
CAFNR Vice Chancellor and Dean Christopher Daubert shared the connection between Mr. Kirklin’s work in the late 1800s, and the purpose of the new learning laboratory today as part of his remarks at the event.
“One of the big strengths of our Plant Sciences program is the hands-on nature of our training, which provides students with the real-world experience necessary to prepare them for success after graduation,” he said. “Preparing students for the plant sciences workforce through hands-on learning opportunities sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Mr. Kirklin truly was a precursor to what we aspire to do with our students with this new laboratory!”
Daubert also announced the Henry Kirklin Memorial Scholarship as part of the event – if $25,000 in funds can be raised to endow the scholarship quickly, CAFNR will be able to begin to start awarding it to students this fall, he said.