This award-winning author brings us the story of Junius G. Groves, born into slavery in Kentucky in 1859. He went on to become one of the wealthiest black Americans of his time, earning the moniker in 1902 of “Potato King of the World” after out-producing every one else in America.
When Groves was twenty, he left Kentucky and became an “Exoduster,” one of thousands of people from the South who “shook the dust from their feet” and headed west to the Plains to make better lives for themselves and their families.
Groves is said to have walked the whole way to Kansas – more than five hundred miles – working at odd jobs along the way. He ended his journey in the Great Kaw Valley near Kansas City, and got a job on a potato farm. Under his care the crops thrived so much that he was promoted to foreman of the whole farm. Groves also rented nine acres from his boss to grow his own crops, some of which were white potatoes.
Groves continued to rent more land, growing ever more potatoes. He was helped by his wife Matilda. In 1884, they bought eighty acres near the mouth of the Kaw River. They worked hard, paid off the loan to buy the land in just a year, and bought more – eventually owning more than 500 acres. Because of his astounding success in optimizing potato growth, a railroad company even built a special spur to his potato house. But he wasn’t done yet.
The author writes:
“Over the years, the Potato King grew more than a big family, more than cabbage and carrots and corn, more than fruit trees. More than potatoes.
Junius G. grew jobs – hiring farmhands.
Junius G. grew a park – Groves Park.
And a cozy community – Grovers Center.
And a church – Pleasant Hill Baptist.
A store that sold groceries and other goods.
A golf course, too.”
Groves had a large family to take care of as well. According to the Kansas Historical Society, “Groves and his wife, Matilda, built a 20-room mansion, which featured the latest comforts of the day — electricity, hot and cold running water, and telephones.” Moreover, although the author doesn’t go into details, much of what Groves built was for the benefit of other African American families. For his Groves Center community, small tracts of land were sold to black families, and the golf course was for the use of African Americans, a rare amenity in the segregated country at that time.
Groves was a founding member of the Kansas State Negro Business League, the Kaw Valley Potato Association, the Sunflower State Agricultural Association, and the Pleasant Hill Baptist Church Society. He was featured in Booker T. Washington’s book, The Negro in Business, (1907).
Junius Groves died in 1925.
The author concludes with a timeline, a glossary, and a list of selected sources for more information.
Illustrator Don Tate, also an award winner, uses mixed media illustrations dominated by the green and brown colors of the farm to flesh out the story.
Evaluation: The author celebrates all of Groves’ achievements without going into the mechanics. How did he overcome the racist attitudes and policies of his time? What was he doing that made his potato farming so much more successful than anyone else’s? Adults who read this book to kids may want to follow up on the story by pursuing some of the resource materials provided by the author. But the positive focus on achievement and what can be accomplished by hard work will provide plenty of thought-provoking and inspirational appeal to the intended audience of ages 5-8.
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House, 2018