The Black History of Coffee

February is Black History Month. To celebrate Black History Month, we want to acknowledge the storied history of black people and coffee. To learn more about the black history of coffee, keep reading.

The Origin of Coffee

Black Person Harvesting Coffee Beans, The Black History of Coffee

The first known coffee crops were grown in Ethiopia. Coffee quickly gained popularity through trade with the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and eventually America. Similarly to many imported products at the time, the coffee trade relied on slave labor. Once European colonial powers realized they could grow coffee in other tropical areas, they began importing enslaved people to work on their new coffee plantations.

While the beginning of the black history of coffee is one of slave labor, we've made leaps and bounds moving away from that.

Coffee and the End of Slavery

Rose Nicaud, The Black History of Coffee

Portrait of Rose Nicaud by Maddie Stratton, via Nola

Until its abolition in 1865, slavery was a common practice in the United States. There was one formerly enslaved woman named Rose Nicaud who sold coffee. She opened the first fresh coffee stand in New Orleans. Not only did she support her own freedom, she popularized cafe au lait. Eventually, she saved enough money to open a permanent location. Rose Nicaud inspired many other free women of color to open their own coffee carts. She's an icon of the New Orleans coffee scene. Because of her, coffee shops became popularized in New Orleans and the surrounding areas.

While slavery was abolished in the United States, it's still a widely-used practice in some countries. Finding fairtrade coffee beans was nearly impossible until recently. In 2015, President Obama signed a bill banning the import of goods produced with forced labor. With that bill came more availability of fairtrade coffee.

A Conversation Worth Having

Black Woman with Coffee, The Black History of Coffee

The storied and sometimes uncomfortable discussion that is the black history of coffee is an important conversation to have. Coffee is a major piece of American life. We have it so readily available because generations of black people were enslaved on coffee plantations. Oppression still exists in the coffee supply chain, but it doesn't have to. When we transition away from coffee produced using slave labor, we help support sustainable and ethical agriculture. 

This Black History Month, we work to acknowledge the oppression that lead to the drinks we enjoy today. We hope learning about this gives you more appreciation for the coffee you love and the hands that have worked for it.

Denise Hansen, The Black History of Coffee