Through the Looking Glass (3/1/2019)

The 1871 Lewis Carroll book Through the Looking Glass was a sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In Through the Looking Glass, Alice again enters a fairy tale world, this time by climbing through a mirror into the world that she can see beyond the mirror.
Last week we examined the FFA-NFA “merger” through the Looking Glass of E. M. Norris, long-time Executive Secretary of the NFA.  This week we will look at the merger through the Looking Glass of several others including teachers of both races at the time of the merger.

If I were writing a fairy tale it might end with the phrase, “…and they lived happily ever after.” Is this how the merger of the New Farmers of America (NFA) with the Future Farmers of America (FFA) ends? If you read about the merger as seen through the Looking Glass of the FFA you might conclude it was a beautiful, happy fairy tale. A. W. Tenney was Chief of the Agriculture Education Service during the merger process.  He was also the author of the book FFA at 50, A Golden Past A Brighter Future. At the end of the New Farmers of America chapter Tenney’s Looking Glass view of the merger was (1977, p. 172):

Black youth have found a firm place in the FFA. They are rendering outstanding service to the FFA and are living up to the high ideals of the FFA. They have had members elected to office in local chapters, state associations and the National FFA Organization. They wear with pride the FFA jacket of blue and gold and take part in all FFA activities “wherever corn is grown and Future Farmers meet.” [It should be noted, at the time this book was written only one black student had served as a national FFA officer – Fred McClure of Texas].  

Unfortunately, Tenney’s rhetoric didn’t exactly match reality.

Less than a year after the merger, a former NFA member – J. LeVonne Chambers, who was a lawyer in Charlotte, NC wrote a letter to John Gardner, Secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare expressing his concerns about the merger. He was concerned about the role accorded Negroes after the merger in the supervisory process and was also concerned about the NFA. Here are excerpts from his letter (April 6, 1966, see the Chambers letter  retrieved from the appendix of Dexter Wakefield’s dissertation):

“With the merger of the student organizations the white officers have continued as such, although the student organizations supposedly merged.  Negro officers were merged out of existence…The present program in North Carolina is having a demoralizing effect upon the students and adults and others interested or active in vocational agriculture. We are respectfully requesting that the program in North Carolina be reviewed with the view of according proper respect and rights to the Negro students and adults active in the vocational program.”

Did Chambers know what he was talking about? Were his concerns valid? A couple of doctoral dissertations that consisted of interviews with white and black teachers might provide insight regarding his claims.

In 2001 Dexter Wakefield, now a teacher educator at Texas State University wrote a doctoral dissertation at Purdue University titled “ Impact of the New Farmers of America (NFA) on Selected Past Members: A Historical Narrative” (this link opens the dissertation). In this dissertation, Dr. Wakefield interviewed nine former NFA members to get their perspective on the NFA and the merger.  His major goal was to document the benefits of being an NFA member, however, there were four questions focused on the merger. In the appendix, there is a verbatim transcript of the responses. What follows is a summary of the findings regarding the merger (but I would encourage you to read the actual transcripts).

…the merger made it more difficult for Black students to gain leadership roles in the much larger FFA Organization, and it was much easier for Black students to win awards when they were in their own organization. All of the participants stated that the merger had a demoralizing effect on the NFA members. They felt that all remembrance of the NFA would be lost forever and that the FFA would not be losing anything in the merger…The participants stated that they had lost their identity with the merging of the two organizations. One participant stated that there were times when a Black and White teacher were placed in the same high school and the White teacher received more pay than the Black… (Wakefield, 2001, p. 108 and 109 of the pdf file, pages 93-94 of the dissertation).

Donald Gilman, Director of Career, Technical, and Ag Education for Sumter County Schools in Georgia wrote a dissertation at Auburn University in 2013 titled “ Examining the Merger of the NFA and FFA” (this link opens the actual dissertation). He interviewed 12 white teachers in Georgia who were teaching at the time of the merger to identify their thoughts and experiences regarding the merger.  Some of the points that emerged from the interviews were (Gilman, 2013):

  • The merger was forced on the teachers (p. 72).
  • There was uncertainty, tenseness, resentment, and reservations from both groups of teachers (p. 72).
  • White teachers were not really prepared to work with black students and vice versa (p. 76).
  • Half of the teachers interviewed viewed the FFA as superior to the NFA (p. 77).
  • A majority of the teachers thought the merger was either harmful or it helped no one (p. 79).
  • Black students lost their role models (black teachers) and thus lost interest in agriculture (p. 81).

Pages 50 – 69 of Gilman’s dissertation contain numerous direct quotes from the interviewees. Because of space restrictions, I have not included them here, but you really should look at them.

Several writers have examined the impact of school integration and the FFA-NFA merger.  African-American agriculture teachers were highly respected and were leaders in their communities before the merger (see the 9/07/2018 Footnote). After integration (which led to school consolidation) and the FFA-NFA merger, the number of African-American agriculture teachers declined. Bowen (1994, p. 7) writes, “…once African-American teachers vanished, their strong community leadership roles were not sustained by white teachers.”
At the time of the merger, there were 50,000+ NFA members. In 2011 there were approximately 21,000 black students in the FFA. Where did the black students go?  Gliem and Gliem (2000) found there were more black students in agricultural education who were non-FFA members than were FFA members. The number of black students who are FFA members has declined dramatically since the merger.  

Black teachers served as role models for black students. The decline of black teachers and black students in high school agricultural education programs impacted agricultural education enrollments at 1890 historically black land grant colleges. A number of 1890 institutions closed their agricultural teacher education programs after the merger. Bell, Powers, and Rogers (1987) indicate that integration ended the infrastructure to sustain African-Americans in agricultural education.

A view of the NFA-FFA merger from outside the profession is found in the Encyclopedia of African-American Education. Jones-Wilson writes (1996, p. 19):

By the early 1970s the NFA was defunct. It had merged with the Future Farmers of America (FFA), its White-dominated counterpart. After integration, African-American youths left NFA to join the FFA, where they were not welcomed by the young White members.  African-American members were prevented from holding office or participating in any meaningful way in FFA.

I am not sure what qualified Jones-Wilson to write about the merger, yet this is what was published in the Encyclopedia of African-American Education.

Concluding Remarks

Your perspective of the FFA-NFA merger might depend upon your Looking Glass. If you look at the merger as seen through the FFA Looking Glass you might conclude it was a beautiful, happy fairy tale; but based on the information presented in this Footnote, it is obvious that the FFA-NFA merger did not have a fairy tale ending. The merger was difficult for all.

In 1995-96 I was asked by the National FFA to chair the H. O. Sargent Task Force. It was a privilege and honor to be asked to do this.  The goal of the Task Force (MeeCee Baker, A. P. Bell, Jamie Cano, Alvin Larke, Jr., Corey Flournoy, Marion Fletcher, Charles Keels, Dreyfus Williams, and Frank Saldana) was to establish the criteria, application, and parameters for the revived H. O. Sargent Award. Finally, there would be some visible vestige of the NFA in the FFA. We took this task seriously and worked diligently on our charge. The first time the H. O. Sargent award was bestowed in the post-merger era was in 1996.

When the FFA discontinued this award after 2008 I felt a sense of loss. What the committee had worked so hard on was no more. I was sad. However, my sense of loss must have been minor compared to the sense of loss experienced by members and leaders of the NFA when it was merged with the FFA. An integral part of their life’s work and existence was no more.

We cannot go back in time and change history. However, we can impact future history. So, what are we going to do in the future to achieve the unfilled promise and potential of the FFA-NFA merger?

Teaching Ideas:

When you teach the unit on FFA History, specifically about the NFA, consider the following ideas.

1.  Draw a square on the board divided it a 2 x 2 matrix. Label the two columns FFA and NFA. Label the two rows Gains and Losses. Have you students brainstorm gains and losses to each organization and members of the organizations as a result of the merger.

2.  Start your lesson with a “fake” announcement. The announcement is from the school administration. Because of budget issues, the school board has ruled that all career and technical education clubs (such as SkillsUSA, HOSA, FCCLA, DECA, FBLA, FFA, etc.) are to be merged into one club called the CTE Club.  Ask for questions, comments, and concerns from your students about this merger. Are there any parallels between this and the FFA-NFA Merger in 1965?

3. If you have students who need an SAE, they could interview former NFA members (if you live in a state where there was an NFA). The questions used by Wakefield are found on pages 115-116 of his dissertation. Students could contact local black churches, the Cooperative Extension Service and the Farm Bureau to identify possible people to interview.


Bell, A. P., Powers, L. D. & Rogers, J. C. (1987, December). Commitment of 1890 land Grant Institutions to Teacher Education in Agriculture. The Agricultural Education Magazine. Volume 60, No. 6.

Bowen, B. (1994, June). Reflections on the Need for Diversity: Desegregation vs. Integration. The Agricultural Education Magazine. Volume 66,  No. 12.

Gliem, R. R., & Gliem, J. A. (2000). Factors that encouraged, discouraged, and would encourage students in secondary agricultural education programs to join the FFA. Proceedings of the 27th Annual National Agricultural Education Research Conference, San Diego, CA, 27, 251-263.

Jones-Wilson, F. (1996). Encyclopedia of African-American Education. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

National FFA Organization. (2011). FFA statistics.