For its first fifty years, there were two extension services in Florida—one for whites and one for African-Americans.
The South had been racially segregated since the 1870s, the end of the reconstruction period following the Civil War. At that time, many southern states including Florida passed so-called “Jim Crow” laws that created separate facilities and services for whites and African-Americans. Jim Crow laws were especially strict when it came to education; in the South, African-Americans were not offered admission into land-grant universities established by the Morrill Act of 1862. In order to give African-Americans a better chance at higher education, a second Morrill Act was passed in 1890. It required each state using race as a criterion for admission to establish a separate land-grant institution for persons of color. In many states, this meant that private colleges for African-Americans were now eligible for land-grant status and federal funds. In 1891, the State Normal College for Colored Students in Tallahassee (now Florida A&M University) became the state’s second land-grant university.
Twenty-two years later, the segregation of land-grant colleges caused trouble for the Smith-Lever bill making its way through the US Senate. The bill proposed bringing the benefits of higher education to the public by funding land-grant colleges to set up extension systems in each state. Northern senators amended the bill to require that all land-grants share the funds equally; southern senators defeated the amendment, arguing that black land-grant colleges were inadequate to perform extension work. When the Smith-Lever bill passed in 1914, a compromise allowed states to decide which college or colleges would administer their Smith-Lever funds.
As a result, when the Florida legislature adopted the Smith-Lever Act in 1915, all funds for the extension system went to the University of Florida.
In its first year, the director of the Florida Agricultural Extension Service, P.H. Rolfs, outlined seven major priorities for extension work. The next-to-last, Project VI, provided for “the instruction of negro boys and girls living on farms.”
- Project I: Administration and Publications
- Project II: Demonstration work with adult farmers
- Project III: Boys’ agricultural clubs
- Project IV: Home demonstration
- Project V: Controlling hog cholera
- Project VI: Instruction of negro boys and girls living on farms
- Project VII: Silo Construction
In the beginning, Project VI centered on developing Farm Makers and Home Makers Clubs, equivalents to the corn clubs and tomato clubs set up for white youth. Later it was expanded to include farm and home demonstration work for African-American adults. Known then as the “negro department”, extension work among African-Americans was carried out by a black district agent, headquartered at Florida A&M College and supervised by a white state agent from the University of Florida. Thus, by 1917, Florida had established two separate extension systems that would continue along parallel paths for the next forty-eight years. Black agents and white agents would cover the same subjects, do the same kind of club work, teach the same short courses using the same USDA pamphlets and experiment station bulletins–but they might as well have been working in separate worlds.
Separate, But Not Quite Equal
For Florida’s African-Americans in the first quarter of the century, the world was a considerably more limited place than it was for whites. A 1920 census reported that 63 percent of African-American Floridians lived in rural areas. The majority were tenant farmers; they didn’t own the land they worked, and owed their shelter and wages to a landlord. Only 24 percent of farms were operated by African-Americans, and of those, less than half were owned by African-Americans. These farms had smaller acreage and were valued much lower than white-owned farms. In addition, illiteracy, poverty and poor sanitation were rampant in black rural communities. African-American farmers in Florida needed the help of the extension service. Unfortunately, when the “negro department” of Extension was established, it had only one full-time agent and an annual operating budget of $1,182.49 (roughly 1.5% of the total budget).
That Project VI was a success at all can be credited to the work ethic of its first district agent, A. A. Turner. Turner came to Florida in 1915 from the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Established by Booker T. Washington in 1881, and with faculty like the legendary George Washington Carver, Tuskegee was the leading institute for extension work in the country. Turner shared Washington’s belief that self-help and respect for hard work was the key to helping African-Americans elevate themselves socially and economically. In an editorial to the College Arms, FAMU’s college newspaper, Turner wrote that extension work offered a real incentive for young people to “see the joy and profit in the work they are doing,” resulting in “industrious, reverent and thrifty men and women who will love work and aspire thru its wholesome agency to take their rightful places in their world.”
Farm Makers and Home Makers
In 1917, when Project VI expanded to include extension work among adults, Turner was made district agent; in addition to his work with youth clubs, Turner was tasked with supervising a group of African-American assistant farm and home demonstration agents throughout the state. Because of the complexities of a segregated bureaucracy, each assistant agent had to file weekly reports to be approved by their immediate supervisors, white county agents, who then forwarded these to Turner at Florida A&M, who summarized them and sent off a report to his own supervisor in Gainesville. Turner also visited each assistant agent in the field at least once a month to evaluate their work and assist in program planning and training. In an early report, Turner estimated that he made over 650 visits and travelled 13,101 miles within a single year. He worked at this continuously for 32 years until his retirement in 1948.
Under Turner’s leadership, assistant agents helped Florida’s African-American farmers to increase their crop yields, establish farm credit and farmers’ co-ops, and market their products, often leading to great success. In 1937, he encouraged his agents to do demonstration work with two potential cash crops—sugarcane and sweet potatoes. Four years later, there were demonstration fields in 24 counties across the state and syrup refined from the sugarcane was bottled and marketed at the Florida State Fair in Tampa and later at the World’s Fair in New York. Flocane Syrup and Florico Yams soon entered the national market, and at least one farmer in Hamilton County was selling his sugarcane crop for as much as five cents per stalk.
From 1917 to 1929, Turner was in charge of both men and women agents, though his time was primarily occupied with farm demonstration work and boys’ clubs. He recruited his wife Susie to temporarily supervise home demonstration agents, but the Home Makers clubs did not have a leader until 1929, when Julia Miller was appointed Local District Home Demonstration Agent in charge of African-American women. Rosa Ballard, an agent with years of extension experience in Alabama, took over in 1932; when she died unexpectedly the next year, extension leadership in Gainesville would not provide a replacement for her until 1936. So at the height of Great Depression, African-American women agents had to again make do without a leader as they taught families how to survive by mending clothes, preserving fruits and vegetables, and making mattresses at home.
One of those Depression-era agents was Floy Britt. Britt became interested in demonstration work with 4-H while attending Florida A&M University. In 1932 she joined the extension service and was sent to work with clubs in Hillsborough County, where the Depression was causing widespread food shortages in cities like Tampa. With help from the Food Emergency Relief Administration, Britt established a system of urban community gardens and taught residents to grow their own food and can surplus for the future.
During the second world war, Britt was appointed Local District Agent, charged with supervising all African-American home demonstration agents in the state. Unlike previous district agents, she had a bachelor’s degree in Health Education, and during her years of service she emphasized nutrition, health and sanitation in both rural and urban African-American communities.
After the war, Britt campaigned to build a permanent 4-H residential camp for African-American youth. At that time, there were three permanent camps for white 4-H’ers throughout the state, but African-Americans had to resort to tent camping. In 1949, Florida 4-H established Camp Doe Lake in the Ocala National Forest; its ten large cabins could accommodate 130 campers, and it became a site for swimming, crafts and education programs through the mid-1960s.
Britt was also instrumental in developing home demonstration agents into a more professional and better educated organization. In her 1954 Master’s Thesis, she recommended that all home demonstration agents have at least a bachelor of science degree, and that their training include economics, anthropology, psychology and political science. Later, she established the Florida State Association for Negro Home Demonstration Agents to develop quality leadership and a sense of professional pride.
After 21 years of service, “Miss Floy” retired in 1967. By then, Florida’s extension service had been integrated under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the “negro department” had been disbanded. Upon her retirement, Dean for extension Joe Busby wrote: “Floy Britt was a pioneer in the civil rights movement to bring equal opportunities through 4-H clubs for black girls in Florida.”
For more than fifty years, African-Americans in Florida’s extension service had to do hard work under harder conditions. They worked side by side with white agents, but had to do so with a smaller staff, unequal pay, inadequate facilities, greater accountability, and resistance from local governments. This was in addition to the day-to-day inequities, indignities and hazards of living in the segregated South. Yet despite these obstacles, African-American agents worked tirelessly to help people in the communities they served to gain access to better education, health, and economic opportunities. In her study of black extension work in Florida, The Lamplighters, Barbara Cotton quotes a former extension agent:
“I thought of extension service as a ministry. It’s not all the pay but it’s the job satisfaction and the love for people. I guess I worked twelve to fourteen hours a day–doing my regular routine work during the day and at night with my meetings and what not. I didn’t mind it; I just loved it because I thought I was making a contribution.”
It was the belief that they were making a lasting contribution that kept agents like A.A. Turner and Floy Britt in the field throughout their long and often difficult careers, and their dedication serves as a model for extension work today.
Cotton, B.R. 1982. The Lamplighters: Black Farm and Home Demonstration Agents in Florida, 1915-1965. Tallahassee, Florida A&M University.
Florida 4-H Hall of Fame. n.d. Floy Britt. http://florida4h.org/foundation1/FL4H/BrittF.htm
Florida Agricultural Extension Service. 1950. Report of General Activity for 1950. Gainesville: University of Florida.
Rolfs, P.H. 1915. Cooperative Extension Work in Agriculture and Home Economics. University of Florida Division of Agricultural Extension and United States Department of Agriculture Cooperating. Gainesville: University of Florida.
Turner, A.A. 1919. Farm and Home Makers’ Clubs. University of Florida Division of Agricultural Extension and United States Department of Agriculture Cooperating. Bulletin 19. Gainesville: University of Florida.