The Role of Tuskegee University in Agricultural Outreach and Extension Work for Black Farmers in Rural Alabama, 1940–64

Sunday, January 5, 2020: 8:30 AM
New York Ballroom East (Sheraton New York)
Camille Goldmon, Emory University
During the New Deal, the federal government made unprecedented efforts to restore and altogether reform the agricultural industry, resulting in permanent growth of the government’s role in agriculture ranging from the expansion of extension programs to the distribution of loans and subsidies. However, from the start of the New Deal through the 1990s (and as some scholarship argues, longer), federal and local agricultural agents systematically excluded African-American farmers and agricultural laborers from agricultural aid programs and extension work. Discriminatory practices in the funding and staffing of extension services serving black farmers ensured a sustained decline in the numbers of those farmers. Alabama’s racial demographics paired with the prominence of the agricultural industry in the state makes it a prime example of how agricultural policy neglected African-Americans. More interestingly, it is demonstrative of the agency black institutions exercised to help black farmers navigate these obstacles. This paper investigates how one such institution, Tuskegee Institute, worked with federal agencies as an intermediary on behalf of black farmers in the postwar period.

Working primarily within the Tuskegee Archives and United States Department of Agriculture records, this paper examines how Tuskegee Institute in Alabama advocated for black farmers and farm laborers. Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee, prioritized agricultural education and outreach to rural, black farmers. Washington’s example prevailed at Tuskegee throughout the postwar period, as evidenced by the school presidents succeeding him. These presidents furthered agriculture research and outreach, participated in civic organizations, and maintained political connections that situated Tuskegee Institute as a spokesman for the interests of black farmers. This paper argues that the relationship between the USDA and Tuskegee allowed its leadership to shape federal extension work and policies affecting black farmers.

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