Most of us are familiar with the names of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. However, there is another name that belongs with these two and that is Thomas Monroe Campbell. He was the first African-American extension agent in the United States and was responsible for implementing the Tuskegee Movable School. In this Footnote, we will learn more about Campbell and the Movable School.
Thomas Monroe Campbell
Campbell was born in Elbert County, Georgia on February 11, 1883. His father was a Methodist preacher and a tenant farmer. His mother died when he was five years old, leaving six children for his father to raise. However, his father was so busy being a preacher, that he neglected his children and hired them out to work for other people. During the times when his father rented land to farm, the children were really nothing more than slave labor. As soon as a child got old enough to leave home, that child left. And that is what Thomas did.
Booker T. Washington spoke at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta on September 18, 1895. That speech made Washington and Tuskegee Institute household names in the South. Word spread that hard-working Negroes who desired an education were welcome at Tuskegee. Campbell’s older brother, Willie decided to “escape” the home situation and did so. Willie ended up at Tuskegee and encouraged Thomas to follow him.
On January 2, 1899, fifteen-year-old Thomas ran away from home with 10 cents in his pocket; his destination being Tuskegee. It was very cold that winter and Thomas had to find odd jobs just to survive. It took him nearly four arduous months to make the trip from Georgia to Alabama. When he arrived at Tuskegee there was a smallpox outbreak and the school was under quarantine. If he entered the grounds he would not be allowed to leave and could possibly get smallpox. He chose to enter.
Campbell’s Tuskegee Experience
On the first day at Tuskegee Thomas was asked what trade he wanted to learn. It was suggested he study agriculture and he said OK (not realizing that really meant farming). He was assigned to work with the livestock division; specifically, at the horse barn working with the horses.
He then went to the Academic Department to take his entrance exams. The results were not good. He was admitted as an “unclassified” student which meant he would have to take remedial night classes before he could take even the lowest level courses.
It took Thomas seven years to complete his education at Tuskegee. He considered George Washington Carver to be a mentor. During the summers he worked at a variety of challenging jobs in order to pay for his schooling.
Because of his work in the horse barn, Thomas got to know Booker T. Washington on a personal basis. Thomas cared for the horses that pulled Washington’s buggy and became his personal driver. He would drive Washington to the train station and pick him up when he returned from trips. Thomas also drove Washington and his many prominent guests around Tuskegee when they came to visit. As he escorted the guests around, he heard Washington discussing the problems facing the rural south.
After graduating from Tuskegee in the spring of 1906, Campbell decided to pursue graduate study and had just started his advanced studies at Tuskegee when he was appointed by the federal government to the position of “Negro Extension Agent.” Both Carver and Washington supported this appointment. The appointment was effective November 10, 1906 (eight years before the Smith-Lever Act was passed). He was stationed at Tuskegee and given the responsibility of working with the Negro farmers in the area surrounding Tuskegee. Harper and Walcott (2019) state that Thomas Monroe Campbell was the first extension agent in America.
The Idea of a Movable School
In the early days of Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington spent a considerable amount of time in a horse and buggy visiting communities around Tuskegee. One objective of these visits was to recruit students to come to Tuskegee. His second objective was to gain firsthand knowledge of the needs of the families and rural communities.
What did Washington observe on his week forays? He observed squalid, ramshackled cabins, poverty-stricken tenant farmers, disease-laden swamps, and a people trying to eke out a miserable existence (Campbell, 1936). A dozen or so people ranging from infants in arms to decrepit old people might be living in a one or two-room cabin with only one or two beds. A pig or cow pen might be just outside of the back door of the cabin and the well was often in the lowest point on the property. There was rarely any type of sanitary facilities (such as an outhouse) and if there was an outhouse it was just a few boards nailed together with a burlap bag as a door. There were no screens or glass panes in the windows. The steps into the house might be an upturned bucket or wobbly log. The crops were poor and neglected.
Washington started holding monthly meetings at Tuskegee and invited the rural residents to come to campus to see displays and discuss their problems. In 1892 he started holding an annual farmers conference where hundreds of farmers and rural leaders came to campus to discuss rural and agricultural issues (Jones, 1991). In 1904 George Washington Carver started teaching a weeklong “short course in agriculture” on campus. The picture below is of the annual farmer’s conference held at Tuskegee.
While the above activities were helpful, they were not really reaching the people who needed the information the most. Not everyone could come to the farmer’s conferences and those who needed it the most were reluctant to attend. Dr. Washington came up with the idea of having a “Movable School of Agriculture” that would take the expertise of Tuskegee out to the masses. Washington asked George Washington Carver to develop plans for a demonstration wagon that could take agricultural equipment to the very door of the Negro farmer who did not attend the conferences. Washington enlisted the aid of Morris Jesup of New York to finance the demonstration wagon. The wagon was ready to roll in the summer of 1906.
Thomas Campbell was hired in the fall of 1906 to be in charge of the Jesup Wagon and start Farmer’s Cooperative Demonstration work or as Washington called it “A Farmer’s College on Wheels.” While the wagon was used to educate the farmers in the field, the Institute was teaching his children back on campus.
How the Moveable School Worked
On Campbell’s first trip with the Jesup Wagon, he discovered it had equipment, such as a cream separator, a Babcock testing outfit and a churn, that was not needed because few farmers owned cows. The equipment carried in the Jesup Wagon was refined and varied according to the seasons. Campbell (1938, p. 98) wrote “…it required much and time and patience to get the work established. But we continued our efforts and as time went on, we were able to observe improvements in both attitudes and results.” Eventually, the Moveable School arrived at a plan for working with the rural residents. The Movable School “faculty” typically involved an agriculture expert, a home economist, a nurse and the local county agents (agriculture and home economics). Here is how the plan worked:
After consulting with community leaders, vocational agriculture teachers, Jeanes Supervisors, and churchmen Campbell identified a farm in each community to host the movable school. The farm had to be typical of farms in the community (which typically meant rundown, unimproved, and unattractive). The farm owner or tenant had to be on good terms with the neighbors, be willing to allow the farm to be used use as “the classroom,” and had to cover the cost of permanent improvements.
It was made clear to the farmer or landowner that the purpose of the school was for teaching the community better agriculture and homemaking techniques. But as a result, the home and farm would have substantial work done such as screening the house, covering the well, painting the outbuildings, constructing a sanitary toilet, setting out an orchard, terracing the land and renovating the interior of the house. Those who attended the school would be taught how to perform the tasks, get a chance to practice the tasks, and then perform these tasks. The goal was to teach only what the farmer and his family could “repeat, reproduce or re-enact” (Campbell, 1938, p. 119). Most of the farmers who attended the movable school were illiterate.
There was considerable advanced publicity advertising the dates and location of the movable school and encouraging people (men, women, and children) to attend. Most schools were 2-3 days in length. An attendance of 100+ people daily was typical. The school would start promptly at 8:00 AM on the first day with introductions of the church and community leaders, followed by some “plantation” melodies and prayer.
Then the audience would be divided into groups where they received instruction and demonstrations in such areas as the proper care of field and garden crops, effective terracing of the land and intelligent cultivation of the soil, pruning and spraying fruit trees, construction of repairing of simple articles of clothing and bed linen, making and using a fireless cooker, selecting eggs for hatching and care of chicks, building outside steps, locating and constructing a sanitary toilet, recreational methods, and proper health practices. After the content was taught and demonstrated the attendees would practice the skill and then paint, prune, sew, build, clean, organize, etc. what they had learned. At 4 PM there was a break for organized recreational activities. The attendees enjoyed this very much. This process minus the introductions were repeated each day.
Small group instruction on vaccinating a hog for cholera at the movable school.
At the end of the 2-3 day school, the home and farm had been completely renovated and fixed up. It then served as a visual reminder to the community of what was possible.
In 1918 the mule-drawn Jesup Wagon was replaced with a motorized truck. It was named the “Knapp Agricultural Truck” in honor of Dr. Seaman Knapp who is known as the father of farm demonstration work in America. This allowed more territory to be covered and could accommodate additional workers and equipment.
In 1923 the “Knapp Truck” was replaced with a much larger and more substantial vehicle. The new vehicle was named the “Booker T. Washington Agricultural School on Wheels.” It was used to reach even more people.
The efforts of Thomas Monroe Campbell and the Tuskegee Movable School did much to improve the living conditions and farming operations in Alabama and surrounding states. But the influence did not stop there. Tuskegee hosted visitors from Africa, India, China, Japan, Poland, Russia and many other countries who came to observe the Movable School. India developed a similar system for educating peasants. In Albania, the Movable School Idea was implemented as “Donkey Back School” and donkeys were used to get to inaccessible villages.
If space permitted much more could be shared about Thomas Monroe Campbell. We have barely scratched the surface. You are encouraged to read the last entry in the list of references to learn more about Campbell. You are also encouraged to read the book written by Campbell about the Movable School. It is online and is the first reference below. The next time you teach about minorities in agriculture you should include Thomas Monroe Campbell.
Campbell, Thomas (1936). The Moveable School Goes to the Negro Farmer. Tuskegee University Press. This book is online at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015011707026&view=1up&seq=5 and is a fast, interesting read.
Harper, A. & Walcott, E. (2019, February 15). Black History Month Spotlight: T. M. Campbell – America’s first Extension Agent. https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/thomas-monroe-campbell-first-extension-agent-black-history-month
Jones, A. (1991, Spring). Improving Rural Life for Blacks: The Tuskegee Negro Farmer’s Conference, 1892-1915. Agricultural History, Volume 65, Number 2.
Jones, A. (2007) Thomas Monroe Campbell. Encyclopedia of Alabama. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1357