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The Good Earth

The following is a summary of information contained in a journal article written by Doxey A. Wilkerson, a Howard University Professor and Civil Rights Activist. The article was entitled: "The Participation of Negroes in the Federally Aided Program of Agricultural and Home Economics Extension" and was published in The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 7, No. 3, The Purpose and Scope of the Seventh Yearbook (July 1938), on pages 331-343.

In the mid-1930s, the United States Department of Agriculture's Cooperative Extension Service employed more than 9,000 workers, operated in more than 3,000 counties around the nation, and served more than one million American farmers.

The Cooperative Extension Serviced offered provided training in new techniques in farming and educational programs in home economics, along with its service to more than one million children through the boys and girls club programs.

The first federal assistance programs in agriculture began in the latter half of the 1800s, out of which grew the agricultural extension services of the early 1900s. The intent of the program was to "foster improvement in the quality of farm and rural home life through coordinated educational extension activities on the part of land grant colleges and the United States Department of Agriculture." The program offered three primary services: 1) Farm demonstration; 2) Home demonstration; and 3) Boys and Girls Club work.

The first farm and home demonstration agents were appointed in 1906. These workers, known as "county agents" were tasked with assisting farmers in the cultivation their crops and improved methods of managing their farms.

When necessary, agents brought in agricultural specialists to assist farmers, distributed literature on farming and agriculture, and sponsored demonstration projects on animal husbandry, soil conservation, and truck gardening.

Another group of extension workers were the "Home Demonstration Agents" who helped organize groups of homemakers. These workers helped demonstrate new methods of proper food preparation and sanitation. They offered special courses and projects in home beautification, landscaping, and gardening, assistance on topics such as home beautification, sanitation, food selection and preparation.

The youth program, known as 4H Clubs, was centered on children from age 10 to 20. Its purpose was to help children and youth to become more effective farmers, homemakers, and citizens in the future. 4H Clubs functioned on a "learn by doing" philosophy. Participants developed their own farm or home demonstration projects.

The Cooperative Extension Service was an important program for rural residence that depended on the help of the federal government to survive during the Depression Era.

The Participation of Negroes in the Federally Aided Program of Agricultural and Home Economics Extension, by Doxey A. Wilkerson, offered a contrasting view of its benefits to white versus black farmers.

In Maryland, for example, out of 34 Farm Demonstration agents in the state, 32 were white and only 2 were black. Out of 31 Home Demonstration Agents in Maryland, 28 where white and 3 were black. There were 3 Boys and Girls Clubs in the state in 1937. All three were for whites only.

In Maryland in 1937, there were obvious disparities between the number of Negro sharecroppers and the number of County Extension Agents available to help them. This presented a significant difficulty to black farmers because sharecropping (or farming on rented land) was much greater among African-Americans than whites. This disparity also created a greater workload for African-American Extension Agents versus their white counterparts.

In the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 1937, expenditures for extension work in Maryland was more than $370,000.00. Of that total, only $8,773 was expended to support Cooperative Extension work among the black population. At that time, blacks represented 17.8 percent of the population, but only received 2.3% of assistance from the Extension Service.

The report by Doxey Wilkerson noted, "Racial discrimination in the Extension program was greatest where the largest number of Negroes are affected."

Discrimination in the implementation of federally funded programs such as the Cooperative Extension Service reflected the social climate of the times - one of Jim Crow segregation.

Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute would provide the leadership for the providing assistance to black farmers in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It would begin with his effort to assist sharecroppers in Alabama to improve their farming techniques.

On February 23, 1892, more than 400 black farmers attended a conference at Tuskegee Institute, the purpose of which was to discuss the dismal plight of black farmers and how to remedy the situation.
The participants at the Negro Conference at Tuskegee described many of the problems facing Black farmers in the south after Reconstruction.

In Wilkerson's article, he wrote: "They spent the morning telling about their problems of owning and renting land, living in one-room log cabins, mortgaging crops, paying debts, educating children, and living a moral and religious life."

"The farmers reported frankly and simply that four-fifths of them lived on rented land in small one-room cabins and mortgaged their crops for food on which to live. Their three month schools were conducted in churches or broken-down log cabins or under a bush arbor."

From this conference, the delegates drafted a program of self-improvement.. The conference evolved into an annual event attracting black farmers from all over the south encouraging the beginnings of agricultural extension work among the black farmers of the rural south.

In 1896, Booker T. Washington appointed George Washington Carver to head the school's first Division of Agriculture. Washington's goal was to establish Tuskegee as a center for the best agricultural training for black people at that time. By 1897, Washington had succeeded in persuading the Alabama State Legislature to establish a "Branch Agricultural Experiment Station and Agricultural School" for Negroes at Tuskegee. George Washington Carver was appointed director of the school's Agricultural Experiment Station that same year.

The activities of the Tuskegee inspired similar ones in other southern states, including in-the-field demonstration work, county fairs, and short courses in agriculture for farmers

In 1906, Tuskegee Institute implemented a program to take "modern agricultural training to the doorstep of isolated rural farmers" by the creation and operation of what was called; "the Jesup Agricultural Wagon." Staff from Tuskegee's Agricultural Division traveled into the rural areas to teach new farming techniques to farmers in isolated communities who would otherwise be unable to travel to Tuskegee or attend its conferences.

"The wagon carried different kinds of plows and planters, a cultivator, a cotton chopper, a variety of seeds, samples of fertilizers, a revolving churn, a butter mold, a cream separator, a milk testor and other appliances useful in making practical demonstrations, and it had the immense advantage of carrying scientific agriculture directly to the farmers in the fields," as it is described in the article by Doxey Wilkerson.

As a result of the success at Tuskegee, the school was invited to participate in the federal government's Cooperative Extension Program. Dr. Seaman K. Knapp, Special Agent in charge of Farmer's Cooperative Demonstration Work of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, extended the invitation.

In November 1906, Thomas M. Campbell, a Tuskegee graduate, became the first black demonstration agent in the Untied States. A month later, another African-American was hired as a demonstration agent at Virginia's Hampton Institute. Both men, working two of the nation's black colleges, marked the beginning of African-American participation in the Cooperative Extension Service of the United States Department of Agriculture.