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Unsung heroes of the early civil rights movement

Conley Greer (right) was the first black cooperative extension agent in Albemarle County.
Ivy Creek Foundation
Conley Greer (right) was the first Black cooperative extension agent in Albemarle County.

When you think about civil rights leaders, you might think first of preachers or college students, but it turns out another group was quietly promoting the cause of Black citizens in rural communities from the start.

The men and women of cooperative extension deserve credit for their early role in supporting and promoting the prosperity, agricultural and political education of Black farmers in America.

When American slaves were freed, they were promised forty acres and a mule. Few actually got those resources, but many remained on the land, often working as sharecroppers.

In 1914, the federal government partnered with land grant colleges to help American farmers through the cooperative extension service, and in the South there was a separate division for Black farmers.

“There are about nine million Negroes in our southern states, and the majority of them live on farms,” the narrator of an informational film said.

This film, produced in 1936, described how cooperative extension agents taught farmers to avoid single crops and plant those that would renew the soil. "Such as soy beans, cow peas, Austrian and vetch. Witness this fine stand of Japan clover.”

There were lessons in home improvements and, for the women, explanations of safe food storage. "Home canning and curing of the family meat supply saves cash. Not outlay is needed for bringing home the bacon where farmers are thrifty and follow approved meat curing and smoking methods. A smokehouse is a necessity on the southern farm, for what is home without a ham?"

But that wasn’t all that Black extension agents taught according to Carmen Harris, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina Upstate.

"They focused very much on citizenship. You know a lot of times when they look at civil right activism in the early years, and we see the people who are being activists. They are farmers, and a lot of times these African American farmers who were not wealthy were people who nonetheless stood up for justice," Harris said.

To improve their productivity, agents often encouraged Black farmers to collaborate, and their children were invited to join clubs. "Four Club or tomato clubs or canning clubs. Clubs gave practice in leadership and stuff like that, so they learned a lot about politics."

At first, Harris says black extension agents were cautious, sharing advice that might improve the landlord’s profits while making little difference for a sharecropper, but with time that began to change. "When African Americans can meet with share croppers, it allows them to be somewhat subversive. The intent of white extension agents was always not entrepreneurial, subsistence kind of stuff, but the idea for most of those the African American extension agents for some of the African American farmers was more entrepreneurial."

The extension service was an inherently conservative organization as that 1936 film, the Negro Farmer, made clear. "Dr. Booker T. Washington taught that agriculture should be the fundamental pursuit of his race in America, and the extension service tries to help Negroes in their effort to achieve the objectives he so wisely laid down long ago. The Negro, he said, must begin at the bottom, he said, and lay a sure foundation and not be lured by any temptation to rise on a false foundation."

The money for the program was always controlled by white administrators, and during the New Deal, American farmers were paid to boost prices by reducing supply. Again, history professor Carmen Harris. "You had farmers now getting paid not to farm and even though they were supposed to share that money with any Black sharecroppers they had, in most cases they kicked those farmers off the land and kept the money for themselves."

The Second World War meant work for Black men in the military and in Northern factories, so families moved away from Southern farms. After the war the movement for civil rights became more assertive and was based in cities.

Still, Harris thinks the men and women of cooperative extension deserve credit for their early role in supporting and promoting the prosperity, agricultural and political education of Black farmers in America.

Harris will speak at the Ivy Creek Natural Area in Charlottesville on Zoom this Wednesday evening. That’s where Albemarle County’s first African American extension agent lived. The program is free, but registration is required. You’ll find details on our website, RadioIQ.org. For more information, https://ivycreekfoundation.org/calendar/event/1035

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief