Forty Long Years (2/22/2019)

A well-known phrase, attributed to various Native American tribes, is that a person should “walk a mile in his moccasins” in order to better understand the other person’s situation and point of view (this phrase actually comes from a poem titled “Judge Softly” written in 1895 by Mary T. Lathrap). We might have a better understanding of the merger of the Future Farmers of America (FFA) and the New Farmers of America (NFA) if we could actually walk a mile in the moccasins of the NFA leadership.

Since that is not possible, the next best thing might be to become familiar with a monograph titled Forty Long Years. E. M. Norris, a teacher educator at Prairie View A&M in Texas, who also served as the NFA Executive Secretary from 1947 to 1965, was not very gentle in his assessment of the history of the relationship of the Federal Agricultural Education officials with the Negro teachers (since Norris used the term Negro in the monograph that is the word that will be used here). The photo below is of Ernest Mishael Norris.

E. M. Norris

In his monograph, Forty Long Years, Norris described the seven major disappointments experienced by the Negro teachers and leaders in dealing with the Federal Agricultural Education officials in Washington beginning with the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act.  The Forty Long Years document has been scanned and can be downloaded at this link (if your school blocks external downloads, you might have to download this on a computer not connected to the school network).  It is 16 double spaced pages and is a quick read. This is really a must-read for agricultural education professionals. At one time all new employees at the National FFA Center were required to read this. They might still; I don’t know.

The seven disappointments listed by Norris were:

Disappointment 1. When the Smith-Lever Act was passed in 1914 (creating the Cooperative Extension Service), a Negro was appointed as a federal field agent to work with Negro farmers. It was expected that a similar provision would be made with the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act — a Negro agent would be employed to work with Negro teachers of agriculture. That did not happen. A white person (H. O. Sargent) was appointed to work with Negro teachers.

Disappointment 2. When H. O. Sargent died in an automobile accident in 1936, it was expected that a Negro would be appointed to replace him. Instead, a white person with dubious credentials in working with “special groups” (which was specified in the job announcement) was appointed.

Disappointment 3. In 1941 the Agricultural Education Branch of the U.S. Office of Education (USOE) “legalized” the NFA by assuming administrative control of the NFA. The Negro group was told to support this action or suffer the consequences (removal of travel funds). As a result, the Negro group was not “officially” in control of the NFA but still did most of the actual work involved in operating the NFA.

Disappointment 4. After the 1941 decision, the Chief of the Agricultural Education Branch assured the Negro group that every effort would be made to employ a Negro professional to work in the USOE and this person would be assigned to work with the NFA. This proved to be an empty promise. Nothing was said about this position for the next 10 years.

Disappointment 5. When a new Chief of Agricultural Education was appointed in the USOE, it appeared that finally, a Negro appointment would be forthcoming. A number of Negro leaders were encouraged by the new Assistant Commissioner of Vocational Education to apply. They did. Nothing happened.

Disappointment 6. The Administrative Executive Secretary of the NFA, a white federal official who had been imposed on the NFA, finally retired. The Negroes knew their day had finally arrived to get a Negro in that position. That position was abolished.

Disappointment 7. After the FFA-NFA merger, it was obvious that additional staff would be needed to carry the heavier workload resulting from the merger. And there had been an implied promise during the merger talks that a Negro would be appointed to this position and be allowed to serve on the FFA Board of Directors. The FFA Board Minutes from November 30, 1965, summarize what happened:

“Mr. Hunsicker reported that his efforts to obtain the appointment of a former NFA member as a regional representative for agriculture who could also serve as a member of the FFA Board of Directors was not approved by the U.S. Office of Education officials.”

Attempts by Norris and others to determine who turned down the request and why the request was denied were not successful.

In one section of the Forty Long Years document (P. 11) Norris describes the “merger” but he uses the heading Merger vs. “Swallow Up”. This is what he wrote:

During the three year period that the matter of merging the two organizations was in the discussion stage it became more and more apparent that one party and one only would be the concessionaire. NFA would be giving up all—name, charter, constitution, bylaws, special prizes, awards, insignia, emblem, jacket, creed, flag, banner, colors, adult leadership for guidance, consultation and advice. FFA would give up nothing—not even alter its constitution to provide for one board membership from NFA.

The National FFA membership would be increased by 13 per cent, while in some of the southern states the membership would increase by as much as 25 to 30 percent. In turn, these increases in membership would effect increases in every type of income to the organization.

During the merger talks and because of the passage of the Vocational Education Act of 1963 which expanded the scope of vocational agricultural beyond farming, there had been discussions of coming up with a new name for the FFA. In a meeting of the leadership of the NFA and FFA prior to the merger, the term “Future Farmers and Agriculturalist” had surfaced as a compromise name for the merged organization. A. W. Tenney, Chief of Agricultural Education, had also discussed with the FFA Board the possibility of using this name to reflect the new scope of the FFA after the 1963 Act. Since the name of the FFA was not changed after the merger, this was an additional disappointment.

While it is not possible to actually walk a mile in the moccasins of the NFA leadership, this monograph does give us some idea of what was experienced.

Concluding Remarks

This Footnote was designed to give you one perspective regarding the merger of the NFA and FFA. Next week we will look at several differing perspectives (I had planned to include them with this Footnote but ran out of self-imposed space). We will see how A. W. Tenney, the Chief of Agricultural Education at the time of the merger, regarded the merger. We will also look at two doctoral dissertations – one collected perceptions of the merger from former NFA members and one focused on the views of southern white teachers who were teaching at the time of the merger.  Interesting stuff.

The copy of Forty Long Years that I possess is an original (the document was later combined with several other NFA historical documents and published as a 53-page book by Dr. Simpson at Langston University in 1993. That book is pictured below). I don’t know when Forty Long Years was originally written because there is no date on it.  My best guess, based on the events described, would be 1966 or early 1967. You may recall that the original meaning of Forty Long Years referred to the wanderings in the wilderness of the Israelites after they were freed from slavery in Egypt.