In 1935, Dr. Jesse Jarue Mark, Jr. became one of the first African Americans to earn a Ph.D. in botany in the United States. His work focused on the science of crop resilience and productivity, with a focus on how temperature and climate affect alfalfa production. Mark would go on to a career in higher education, eventually becoming head of the Department of Agriculture at Kentucky State Industrial College.
Born September 24, 1905 in Trinity County, Texas, Mark likely spent his early years in Nigton, an unincorporated community founded (1873) by formerly enslaved people. Known as a freedom colony, Nigton was one of several sites in Texas where African Americans owned and farmed their own land in the decades after the Civil War. One of six sons of Jesse J. Mark, Sr., a farmer, and Lula V. Mark, Jesse Jarue Mark, Jr., sometimes called J.J., may have developed his interest in crop production from firsthand experiences on his own family’s farm.
Mark graduated from Prairie View State College (now Prairie View A&M University) in Prairie View, Texas in 1929. He then continued his education at Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) in Ames, earning a M.S. in 1930 and a Ph.D. in botany in 1935. His dissertation, “The Relation of Reserves to Cold Resistance in Alfalfa,” compared the ability of various alfalfa strains to withstand the effects of harsh winter temperatures common to the plains region of the American Midwest.
During the summer of 1935, Mark was selected to be a Rockefeller Agriculture Fellow. By that time, he had already begun teaching in the Department of Agriculture at Kentucky State Industrial College in Frankfort. He would soon go on to be head of that school’s Department of Agriculture. While there, he continued research associated with the Iowa Agricultural Experiment Station at Iowa State College.
Mark died on February 20, 1971 at the age of sixty-five. He is buried in the Nigton Memorial Park Cemetery in Texas.
Those interested in finding out more information on Mark, might sometimes see him erroneously identified as a woman in scholarly publications. This error stems from a misspelling of his name as “Jessie.”