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With a Little Help from Her Friends

The “Negro” Extension Service as a tool for agency in the segregated South

Source photo: No original caption. [African-American woman picking vegetables from a garden.], between 1920 and 1954, record created by the Department of Agriculture. Extension Service, from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Color treatment by Carter/Reddy

It was tiny, both inside and out, this gray cinder block building that stood nestled on a dirt hill in the Mississippi Piney Woods town of Collins. Equally small was the rusty brown sign outside that proclaimed that the building housed the men and women then known as “Negro county agents” and “Negro Extension home economists.” In fact, I am certain this building was smaller than the living room of the row house where I live today in Washington, D.C. Inside there were five desks, all with ancient Underwood typewriters made from fading black metal die-cast frames, as well as Extension Service brochures on everything from crop rotation and soil fertilization to canning and freezing vegetables and making jelly. 

When I accompanied my father to work in this building—his title was “Negro County Agent”—I felt a sense of pride as I sat at the vacant desk near his. If I close my eyes and think of the place, I can still hear the clicking sound of the manual typewriter keys and the whirring sound the platen made when you turned the round black roller knob to put paper in and out of it, something I did with great regularity. The building is long gone, and I truly regret that there are no existing photographs of it, since I long for evidence that might trigger more memories. Consequently, this is a place that exists only in my past and in the distant back pages of the minds of an ever-shrinking number of other people who also came of age during the waning years of Jim Crow segregation in Mississippi. In many ways the building is more of a relic of the past than the old, segregated water fountain signs.

My regret grows stronger once I begin to explore archival sources on Black county agents and extension home economists. I wanted to find something that might match images from my formative years of my treks from farm to farm with my father and the work that went on in that tiny office. In my memory, the people who advised farmers or performed home demonstrations for rural families conducted their work with dignity, poise, and distinction. These were men and women who took a stand as community leaders and worked creatively within a discriminatory system to change the lives of rural Black families. I sensed that pride each time I visited that tiny office building. But an old film produced forty years before my personal memories of extension work tells a slightly different story about what these men and women confronted in their work.

“The Negro farmer of the South, as well as the white farmers, are becoming more prosperous and contented through agricultural extension work,” reads the first inter-title of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s thirty-two minute, two-reel silent film titled Helping the Negroes to Become Better Farmers and Homemakers. Released in 1921, the film was part of a larger USDA effort not only to show the benefits gained by Black farmers from extension work, but also to spread the message of how white Southerners also benefited from the Extension Service’s efforts. From the very first scratchy black-and-white celluloid images of this film—and even more as the film progresses—the viewer understands that this is a story depicted through a lens of white patriarchy. At least, that is what we see through the lens of the way we live now. 

This film exists as the bizarro twin of the world of the Extension Service I knew growing up. White county agents are viewed as agents of change rather than the Black county agents, who worked directly with Black farmers. Though I long for photographs that confirm my childhood memories of the Extension Service, this film reveals how images, moving or still, can reveal a great truth while at the same time containing a monstrous lie.

The central characters of Helping Negroes happen to be a Black tenant farming family by the name of Collins, which I find amusing since my father’s office was in the town of Collins, Mississippi. During the film the family learns about crop rotation and other modern farming methods. An invisible Black extension home economist—she never appears on screen—converts their “primitive” kitchen to a “progressive one” that is newly whitewashed and clean. The film begins with images of a darkened, run-down dwelling where the Collins children happily eat watermelon and dance as they take breaks from working on the farm, trading in infantilizing and racist tropes that persist to this day. Even though these scenes of Southern rural life have been stylized and staged by the Department of Agriculture for the purposes of domestic propaganda, the film also perpetuates the cultural and political practice of segregation and Black inferiority. 

The only scenes of Black agency in the South depicted in the film occur when the camera shifts to images of tidy red-brick buildings at Tuskegee Institute, which in 1906 at the urging of the USDA—and after conferring with then-president and founder Booker T. Washington—began to train Black agricultural extension agents. The scenes at Tuskegee mark the only part of the film where you see Black men in charge and making decisions, absent of white supervision and approval. Yet one building remains on the margins of every frame: Tuskegee’s practice cottage for its home economics students. This would have been the building where the home economist who worked with the Collins family was trained to teach them how to improve and beautify their substandard tenant dwelling. It would have also been here that women learned food preparation and nutrition practices, knowledge passed along to the Collins family and others like them that would in time fuel the labors of farmers and help them survive and thrive. Unlike my father’s cinder block office, the practice cottage still stands. Yet its contributions to Black life in the South have been overshadowed by the contributions of great men like Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. Today the practice cottage is associated more with George Washington Carver than as the birthplace of Black women in the Extension Service, since it once served as Carver’s residence. 

For years, I thought the contribution of Black county agents was undervalued. While I still believe that is true, particularly after viewing this film, I have begun to recognize the ways the work of Black extension home economists was not only undervalued but often pushed to the margins where its significance was simply rendered invisible. Black women have long done American society’s invisible work, accomplishments thought to be less significant because they were accomplished in kitchens, because they appeared on the pages of cookbooks or in scenes of domestic organization, like the Collins family’s new kitchen. All too often we fail to recognize the power of their contributions in transforming Black life in the South. Yet each time I make a meal and think of how to be innovative or to consider the science of food preparation, I am reminded that much of what I know about cooking largely came from the efforts of these sometimes-invisible women. 

Tuskegee is a special place for my family, since my parents both went to school there and met for the first time near the statue of Booker T. Washington that shows him lifting “the veil of ignorance” from his people. By the time my father arrived at Tuskegee to study agronomy in 1945, the mobile school shown in that 1921 film was nothing but a memory. But when my mother arrived in 1947 to study home economics, the practice cottage was still in use. While my father eventually became a county agent, my mother shifted to elementary education. Yet the life of my family and what we ate, grew, and how we grew it was shaped by Tuskegee and what my mother learned in that cottage. 

Though my mother became an elementary school teacher rather than a home economist, intellectually she was defined by the idea of what some today refer to as “Black food sovereignty,” meaning healthy food rooted in Black culture and raised on your own land. And these ideas of food sovereignty were shaped not only by her time at Tuskegee, but also by the cookbooks she used during my childhood, all of them written and developed by Black women home economists from Mississippi who were also part of this same intellectual tradition. It was in recipes that made use of the foods Black rural Mississippians grew and raised that the Black women of the Extension Service taught my mother and other women—regardless of economic status—the lessons of self-reliance. And as Jim Crow died a slow death, these ideas of self-reliance among Black women would persist when they could move professionally outside of the domestic realm.

The mimeographed pages of my mother’s old Extension Service cookbooks remind me of the exact corner of the knotty pine cabinets of our kitchen where they were safely nestled away from view. There were no other cookbooks that I remember in our house: no Joy of Cooking or Fannie Farmer. In addition to the cookbooks there would have been home canning and freezing guides from the Extension Service in our cabinets as well. But, unlike those more ephemeral documents, the cookbooks remain. 

The recipes are familiar—I can taste the “everyday meat loaf” served with a mixed vegetable casserole—although I can’t say that as a young boy I ever asked to help my mother cook. Yes, Tuskegee’s legacy of gender separation between farm and home lived on in our house. Cooking lessons from my mother had to wait until early adulthood, when I was struggling to make it on my own in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Washington, DC. My mother taught me to make that meat loaf over the phone while I was in graduate school, trying to stretch my modest food budget. It was simple, but my roommates thought I was a culinary genius when I made it. 

But what comes back as much as the memories of the meals my mother cooked are the people who developed the recipes. These were women my mother knew and trusted. She was never acquainted with the women who wrote Fannie Farmer or with Irma Rombauer of Joy of Cooking fame, so those were not thought of as trustworthy resources. But she did know Mabel Thompson and Annie Barron, both extension home economists who worked with my father, and she would follow their advice. The recipes they developed and disseminated on hand-stapled mimeographed pages held more of an allure than any book with lush color photographs or one distributed by a commercial publisher.

Looking at the now yellowing pages of the cookbooks and thinking of where they were kept in our house reminds me that the kitchen had a big window right above the sink that looked out on our backyard and the garden that began on the edge of the tightly manicured Saint Augustine grass of our lawn. 

Like the old Negro Extension Service office, the house is long gone, destroyed more than forty years ago by a tornado. Yet when I visit the site of my old farm, it all comes back into view. And the cookbooks help me recall the bounty of what we grew on that land, which was consistently far more than my family could consume, or even fit in our large chest freezer. 

While I say “garden” in the singular, I should note that there were several gardens on our farm. The one close to the house was more of a kitchen garden: tomatoes, lettuce, turnip and collard greens, cabbage, okra, radishes, beets, and peppers. Past our peach orchard stood what was a massive garden, one that came into view before you even saw our house. There were long rows of potatoes, cucumbers (which my siblings and I sold to a local pickle vat), peanuts, corn, peas, beans. One lower field, distant from the cucumbers, was where we grew our watermelon crop in the summer. Outside of staples like sugar, cornmeal, and flour, we grew almost everything we ate. 

In the 1960s, the recipes remain very basic, yet they seem to be saying to the Southern home cook, “Here are a few variations you can make with things from a Southern garden that add some variety to your diet,” like scalloped or creole okra, which my mother sometimes made as a side dish. There is a recipe for “turnip greens with a flair,” which involves sprinkling bacon and chopped boiled eggs on top of the greens. After contemplating this recipe, it seems to be one shaped by practicality and the need to boost the protein in a dish that sometimes might be the only one some homes had to eat.  

While the cookbooks contain lots of recipes that include beef, chicken, or pork, there are also recipes for venison stroganoff or venison steak with tomatoes for the hunter who has put a deer away in the freezer. There is also a recipe for doves in wild rice for the bird hunters. I’m certain my mother used this recipe, since my father was a dove hunter. However, my siblings and I refused to eat the bounty from my father’s hunting trips, since we disliked the gamey taste. That would have been a dish my mother made just for my father. In retrospect, the wild game recipes might have been a part of this cookbook for a family that did not have the luxury of owning beef cattle as my family did. 

Since my family grew more than we needed, our network of friends often stopped by to pick vegetables to freeze or can. And occasional strangers or people we didn’t know well would stop by and say, “that sure is a nice stand of corn you got there.” The reply was, “y’all go ahead and pick whatever you want.” The same went for peaches or anything else we had. I guess you could say that we had a community garden, since our vast variety of vegetables fed us and anyone who was willing to pick whatever they needed. 

This type of mutual support was simply something witnessed in my everyday life. My family lived independently on our eighty-acre farm in Mississippi during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 1970s and shared our harvests with neighbors who had less. Our form of solidarity seemed to be central to the way Black professional families like mine across the American South lived during those years. Part of survival was finding ways not only to live with dignity, but to also allow those around us to have that same level of dignity.

My mother’s Extension Service cookbooks evoke memories of my farm and the life my family lived there as well as the meals we shared together. But these are more than cookbooks. They are living symbols of solidarity, since there are recipes for everyone, whether you could raise the meat you placed on your table or whether you hunted venison or doves. The recipes for those of means are presented alongside those for people who may have less or must stretch their food, whether it comes from a butcher or from government surplus food items. These cookbooks reveal to me that solidarity wasn’t a concept or idea as much as it was a way of living a dignified life, whether your life is marked by poverty or abundance, all while existing inside the constraints of an immoral and undignified system of segregation.

The recipes inside my mother’s Extension Service cookbooks tell the story of what rural Black women in Mississippi thought was best for creating a self-sufficient farm community, yet in ways that were separate from their white counterparts. There could be no class divide on the pages of the cookbooks. When the Extension Service integrated, Black home economists once again had to assert their expert credentials in creative ways. In an oral history from the Extension Service Archive, Sadye Weir, when asked about the impact of integration of the Extension Service on her work, noted: “I wasn’t going to be pushed around because I knew how to work with my people, something that they [whites] didn’t know.”  What these women did yet again was to make sure that the cookbooks appealed to everyone. And having the name of the Black home economist on equal billing with that of the white home economist achieved that goal, since these were women who held trusted positions on different sides of the racial divide.

Regardless of where she lived, my mother was a Southern cook to her core. Like every Southerner, she would go to extraordinary lengths to make a visitor feel at home. Based on the regional cookbooks she collected when she was no longer on the farm, she could make dishes that visitors from Memphis to Charleston would find familiar and comfortable. And as I compare her recipes from our farm days to what she chose to cook later in life—when cooking was done for both enjoyment and entertaining—I realize that my mother didn’t just follow a recipe, she combined them with similar recipes, and in the process fleshed them out and made them her own.

I will never cook like my mother. She never wanted me to, but she did teach me that I should trust my instincts as a cook and always exercise creativity in the kitchen. That comes from inside me. Her cookbooks serve as reminders of the ways food is affixed to our very being, even connecting us to people who matter to us after they are gone. But the cookbooks also show me how my instincts as a cook need to be rooted in the science of cooking, recognizing that there were rules one must learn before experimenting in the kitchen. What I learned looking back at both the cookbooks made by her Extension Service friends and those she collected is that uncommon, elegant meals can come from common things. 

This series was published with support from The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts.

W. Ralph Eubanks

W. Ralph Eubanks is the author of three books: A Place Like Mississippi, Ever Is a Long Time, and The House at the End of the Road. He is a recipient of a 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship and has been a fellow at the New America Foundation. In February 2023, he was awarded the Mississippi Governor’s Arts Award for excellence in literature and as a cultural ambassador for Mississippi. Currently he is the faculty fellow at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.