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Black History Month: historically Black ag education

This was the scene on February 7, when President Obama signed the 2014 Farm Bill into law at Michigan State University.
This was the scene on February 7, when President Obama signed the 2014 Farm Bill into law at Michigan State University.
Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

President Obama's signing of the 2014 Farm Bill at Michigan State University brought to the fore the role of the land-grant institution in the history of agriculture. This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the passing of the Smith-Lever Act, which established the Cooperative Extension Service, and arguably ensures agricultural education's role in the future of farming, as well as other pursuits. However, in honor of Black History Month, today we look at the second Morrill Act.

In 1890, in order to expand on the work that was begun in 1862 with the first Morill Act, Congress passed another which increased funding and support to one land-grant college in each state, to provide post-secondary education in agriculture and industry. Moreover, this second bill sought "broader education for the American people in the arts of peace, and especially in agriculture and mechanics arts." The funds were to "be applied only to instruction in agriculture, the mechanic arts, the English language, with reference to their applications in the industries of life". In order to receive support from congressmen from the South, at this time a "separate but equal" provision was included, for the establishment of land-grant schools for Blacks. Afterward, in 17 southern and border states, two land-grant colleges existed. In our local area, only Kentucky State University belongs to the list of 1890 land-grant schools.

Just before this time, one agricultural educator, Seaman A. Knapp, put forth the idea that farmers would be more likely to adopt new practices if they were demonstrated on their own farms, rather than at a research farm. This idea, to bring the results of research to farmers where they worked, provided the impetus for the birth of agricultural extension work. Accordingly, historically Black institutions were working to bring research to farmers in their fields, most notably at Tuskegee Institute, where George Washington Carver was recruited by Booker T. Washington to spearhead this effort. Tuskegee is not a land-grant university, but it had a similar curriculum, as well as an agricultural experiment station funded by the 1887 Hatch Act, like many land-grants. In 1892, the first annual Negro Farmers Conference took place at Tuskegee, and extension work among Black farmers had its launching pad. By 1900, over 1,000 Tuskegee students were doing extension work throughout a wide area. Then, in 1914, the passing of the Smith-Lever Act established and funded cooperative extension at all land-grant schools. We'll talk more about that in a future article.