One hundred years ago, The Smith-Lever Act expanded land-grant colleges’ mission by establishing the Cooperative Extension Service, a national system under the USDA, to take information generated by land-grant university scientists directly to the people in each state. The Smith-Lever Act sanctioned a segregated program for African American residents by allowing states to choose to channel funds through white land-grant schools only.
In South Carolina, the overall Cooperative Extension program, as well as agricultural programs for white men and youth, operated through Clemson College. The home demonstration program for white women and youth operated through Winthrop College until 1955. The agricultural and home demonstration programs for black men, women and youth operated through South Carolina State College until 1965.
African American Cooperative Extension Service employees working in segregated South Carolina from 1915 until after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 faced tremendous obstacles. Like all public services in segregated southern states, African American employees and their programs received far less funding than those for whites. Despite changes in overall funding, this disparity was true for every year until 1965.
In addition, African American agricultural and home demonstration agents worked at the mercy of white administrators and politicians who had overall control of where and how they operated. Yet many creative and dedicated African American agents worked within, and around, these constraints to improve the lives of tens of thousands of rural citizens during those five decades.
Cooperative Extension Service agents organized and supported various community groups, including 4-H clubs. These groups directly and indirectly taught leadership, parliamentary rules, organizational procedures, citizenship practices and collective action, skills that African American South Carolinians were not given many other opportunities to learn and practice in those years.
Agricultural and home demonstration agents working among rural African American South Carolinians also were able to measurably increase farm and home ownership, promote education, develop self-sufficiency, and improve health, nutrition and sanitation.
Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination in employment and education, and outlawing racial segregation in all public places. In the decade leading up to the Act, South Carolina’s Extension Service activity was guided by a climate of overall resistance by many white leaders and citizens to the increasingly active national civil rights movement. Some conditions improved for African American programs, but at the same time African American extension agents lost some of their authority and many workers feared losing their jobs if they participated in civil rights activities.
After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, African American Extension workers in South Carolina faced new challenges as it took several years for the Act to be fully incorporated into the programs and practices. At first, African American and white Extension workers were informed about the implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in separate meetings. In July 1965, all extension employees met together at Clemson to hear a full explanation of the Civil Rights Act and how the Extension Service would comply in South Carolina.
In order to consolidate the entire Extension administrative program at Clemson, three extension officials relocated from South Carolina State College in January 1966 — Wayman Johnson, Associate 4-H Club Agent; Altamese B. Pough, Assistant 4-H Club Agent; and Sara A. Waymer, Assistant in Home Economics Extension. They were the first African American professional staff members at Clemson and faced many challenges.
Gradually, the Extension program in South Carolina fully implemented the Civil Rights Act to create one strengthened program. The process took time because Extension agents were allowed to work only with schools, clubs and community organizations that signed a document agreeing to comply with the Civil Rights Act and to integrate their activities. The state’s schools, for example, were not fully integrated until 1970.
At the same time that South Carolina’s Cooperative Extension Service was transforming from a segregated to a unified program, the state’s rural population was declining. Cooperative Extension Service programs adapted to new needs of South Carolina’s citizens, particularly low income and urban families.
In 1969, a project focused on low-income families became one of the four focus areas of Extension work. Bennie Cunningham, a former assistant state agent supervising African American agricultural agents, was appointed state leader for the new program.
That same year, Bernice Brown of Dorchester County became the first African American woman appointed as the lead county home demonstration agent in South Carolina. In 1971, Ellis D. Dean, the associate agent in Bamberg County, was promoted to county agent, the first African American county agricultural agent in South Carolina under the integrated program.
For more information about this topic and era, see these primary source materials:
CU Archives Series 17 – Walter Merritt Riggs Presidential Records,
CU Archives Series 11 – R.C. Edwards Presidential Correspondence 1959-1965
CU Archives Series 12 – R.C. Edwards Presidential Correspondence 1966-1970