One of the historical leaders in agricultural education whom I admire is Booker T. Washington. He rose from slavery to make something of himself and had a positive impact on countless individuals. I particularly admire his “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” philosophy.
Another early African American leader of Washington’s era with a similar philosophy was R. L. Smith, but his name has largely been forgotten over time (Note: His full name was Robert Lloyd Smith but he used R. L. Smith on his writings and correspondence). He was the founder of the Farmers Improvement Society. In this Footnote we will learn more about R. L. Smith, the Farmers Improvement Society (FIS), and the Woman’s Barnyard Auxiliary.
Figure 1. R. L. Smith
What was the Farmers Improvement Society?
At first this organization was called the Farmers Home Improvement Society. The word “Home” was dropped from the name when the organization was chartered a decade later. So, you might find both names used in this Footnote.
In the late 1800s most Black farmers were sharecroppers or tenant farmers (see this Friday Footnote) and were at the mercy of the landowner and merchants when crops failed of disasters hit. The Black farmers often did not have enough money to pay the rent on the land or to pay merchants for supplies bought on credit. This system created a cycle of debt and made it nearly impossible to leave sharecropping or tenant farming.
R. L. Smith was the principal of the Oakland Normal School in Colorado County, Texas in the late 1880s and witnessed firsthand the exploitation of Black farmers who existed in poverty because of the credit system associated with sharecropping and tenant farming. He decided something needed to be done. So, he established the Farmers Home Improvement Society in 1890 as a farmers organization for African American Farmers but whites could join if they so desired
The Farmers’ Home Improvement Society focused on eradicating the oppressive sharecropper system while generating wealth through savings, implementing more efficient farming practices, and emphasizing the importance of creating cooperative-business networks.
The five objectives of the Society were:
- To abolish the credit system completely, or as much as lies in our power.
- Educate farmers about agriculture and good farming practice to ensure the livelihood of future Black families.
- Buy bulk supplies cooperatively to cut down the practice of buying on credit locally.
- Aid each other in sickness and death through disability and death benefits.
- Encourage members to buy homes, and in owning property, take care to beautify and maintain it.
In 1897 the FIS started publishing a newspaper called The Helping Hand. It carried news about the members and contained inspirational essays and articles about better farming methods. The paper ceased operation in 1935 at the height of the Great Depression.
Figure 2. The Helping Hand. From the Baylor University Texas Collection.
By 1898 the Society had 1,800 members and grew to 21,000 members by 1909. There were approximately 800 branches of the society in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. In order to establish a branch of the Society there had to be 10 members. The membership fee was ten cents annually.
The FIS had gatherings of members across the region. Various branches would cooperate to host the meetings which were typically held during the summer. There would be exhibits on farming and home life, speeches, singing, and educational programs.
Figure 3. An announcement for a FIS gathering. From the Baylor University Texas Collection
The FIS had a cooperative business and was doing $50,000 in business in 1909.
The Society sponsored agricultural fairs in different locations across the state. These fairs demonstrated the value of what the farmers were learning by being members of the Society.
These fairs also attracted white citizens and promoted cooperation among the races (Boston Evening Transcript, January 2, 1900). It should be noted the FIS constitution of 1896 indicated “All persons of good moral character of either sex..” could be members. Smith did not actively recruit whites for the society, but they could join if they wanted to. Poor white sharecroppers experienced the same problems as the Black sharecropper. The editor of the Weimer Mercury wrote in 1902 that the fairs promoted “racial harmony.”
In 1908 the FIS opened the Farmers Improvement Bank in Waco. The bank provided loans to farmers at much lower rates than commercial banks. Smith encouraged farmers to have savings accounts at the bank. The bank building also housed the headquarters for the Farmers’ Improvement Society. The bank operated until the great depression lowered cotton prices drastically. This caused most of the farmers to withdraw their money. The bank failed in September of 1930.
An editorial in The Southern Workman magazine published in 1911 stated:
For many phases of charitable, educational, and church work, the Negroes of Texas seem to be better organized than in most sections. Among the agencies the Farmers Home Improvement Society holds an important place. This is a state-wide organization. It not only aims in systematic way to improve the homes and farms of its members, but conducts co-operative stores, has relief and insurance features, operates a bank, and runs a school for the special training of farmers’ children.
The Farmers’ Improvement School
The Farmers’ Improvement School, typically referred to as the Farmers Improvement School College (or F.I.S. College) or Farmers Improvement Agricultural School was established in 1906 by R. L. Smith near Wolfe City, Texas which is in the northeast part of the state. The word college is really a misnomer. The students were primarily at the elementary and secondary level. According to Bulletin No. 39 Negro Education published in 1916 by the Department of the Interior (p. 575) “The classroom instruction is largely elementary. Some instruction in secondary subjects and teacher training is provided. Classes in agriculture, cooking and sewing are maintained. The pupils assist in the farm activities and household work.”
Figure 4. The school brochure
The school was comprised of 92 acres of land of which 23 acres were cultivated. Five acres were used for the campus and the remainder was pasture. There were four 2-story frame buildings, a small laundry, and a barn. The school was a boarding school. Students live in dormitories on the campus.
Smith said “The main purpose of the school is to demonstrate practically that farm life or farming is the best occupation for Negroes, young or old. My belief is that the average Negro farm life is more suitable, with minor exceptions, and it is this though that we are promoting in the school.”
During the depression and World War II the school experienced financial difficulties and closed at the end of the 1946-47 school year.
Figure 5. Students at the Farmers Improvement Society School.
Who was R. L. Smith?
Smith was born a free Black in 1861 in Charleston, South Carolina. He attended Atlanta University and graduated in 1880 after studying English and mathematics. He taught in the public schools of South Carolina for five years then moved to Texas in 1885 to become principal of Oakland Normal School, a teacher-training institution for African Americans. In 1889 he helped Booker T. Washington in an endowment campaign for Tuskegee Institute and traveled with Washington to the North in 1899. Smith agreed with Washington’s philosophy of self-help and solidarity as a route to economic growth for Black Americans. The correspondence between the two reveal a close connection.
Smith was twice elected (1894 & 1896) to the state legislature in Texas by the voters in a predominantly white district. An amusing incident occurred when he was first elected to the legislature. A lottery was used to determine where the legislators were seated. Smith was seated next to a very prejudiced white legislator who went to the presiding officer demanding to be moved. The presiding officer said nothing could be done, the lottery was final. Several weeks later a vacancy occurred in the legislature and the presiding officer sent for the legislator who wanted to be moved and offered to move him. The legislator declined and stated “But I don’t want to change now.” The two men had become great friends and remained so. Smith’s tact and good sense had won the adversary over (Leupp, 1902).
Smith’s legislative proposals primarily concerned education, race relations, and the advancement of Prairie View Normal School (now Prairie View A&M). After leaving the legislature he taught at Prairie View. It would be seventy years (1966) before another African American was elected to the Texas state legislature.
He was appointed deputy United States marshal for the Northern District of Texas by President Theodore Roosevelt and served from 1902 to 1909. This appointment necessitated a move to Paris, TX in the northeast part of the state. When the White House changed hands and William Taft became President, Smith was removed from that position.
In 1915 Smith organized the state’s Cooperative Extension Service for Negros. It operated out of Prairie View and Smith was the Director. The aim was to improve the farming methods of African American farmers. He took an active role in increasing food production during World War I. He served as director until 1919.
After leaving the Negro Extension Service Smith devoted his time to running the Farmers Improvement Society and serving as the director of the school he established, the Farmers’ Improvement School.
He died on July 10, 1942 and was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Waco.
We Nearly Forgot – The Woman’s Barnyard Auxiliary
At times Smith got annoyed that the Black farmers were concerned only about the big things on the farm like the cotton crop and beef cattle. He encouraged them to sell eggs and take their butter to the market to make ends meet, but the male farmers didn’t readily embrace this idea. So, Smith created the “Woman’s Barnyard Auxiliary of the Farmers Improvement Society” in the late 1890s. These ladies relished their role and improved the home and enhanced the farm income by selling butter, eggs, vegetables, jelly and the like. This group also coordinated local and state fairs and competed for prizes for their garden produce, quilts, canned goods, and chickens.
Figure 6. Clipping from an article in The Worlds Work (1908, Volume 16) titled “An Uplifting Negro Cooperative Society” written by R. L. Smith.
“…for more than twenty years it contributed more than any other
organization to elevating the status of Blacks in Texas.”
The quote above comes from an article in the Texas State Historical Association Handbook of Texas about the Farmer’s Home Improvement Society.
In 1911 Mary Helm wrote in The Upward Path: The Evolution of a Race:
The Farmers Improvement Society in Texas, organized by R. L. Smith in 1890 has been of great benefit to many of the Negroes of that state. The members are pledged to (1) to fight the credit or mortgage system, (2) to improve the method of farming and care of stock, (3) to cooperate in buying and selling, (4) to care for the sick and bury the dead, (5) to buy and improve homes…A great improvement has resulted in the character and conduct of the farms and homes, in agricultural fairs and lectures, and establishment of an agricultural and industrial college.
Despite the popularity of the FIS among African American farmers, the Great Depression took a heavy toll on the farmers and the FIS. During the depression many farmers left for major cities to find jobs. There was a mass exodus of people, both black and white, from the states in which the FIS operated. The FIS lost much of its membership during this era. When Robert Smith died in 1942, so did the Farmers’ Improvement Society.
Even though this organization no longer exists, it accomplished much good during its time. There are several maxims we can take away from this Footnote.
- One person dedicated to a cause can make a difference.
- The “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” philosophy works.
- Both sexes have contributions to make to our efforts.
- We should promote racial harmony.
- Conditions change. We must be willing to adapt.
Helm, Mary. 1911. The Upward Path: The Evolution of a Race. New York: Young People’s Missionary Movement of the United States and Canada.
Leupp, Frances. 1902. Negro Self-Uplifting. Tuskegee: Tuskegee Institute.
The Southern Workman. Volume 40, Issue 12, December, 1911