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  • Documenting Racism in an Agricultural Extension Film
  • J. Emmett Winn

Mainstream commercial filmmaking has been an important site of research devoted to explaining how the media have perpetuated racist African-American stereotypes (Bogle, 1996; Cripps, 1977; Diawara, 1988; Hall, 1981; Rhodes, 1993). These studies have focused primarily on Hollywood filmmaking from 1925 onward, although the Silent Era of motion-picture making has also received some attention. For example, D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, is often identified as a foundational film for its aesthetic impact on moviemaking and as a bigoted film for its use of racist myths and stereotypes (Noble, 1948). However, many filmmakers during the Silent Era—e.g., professional organizations, civic groups, local and state governing bodies, and the federal government—wanted to make movies for noncommercial purposes. Ross (1991) describes how labor and trade unionists, from 1907 to 1929, used motion pictures to “portray their cause visually.”

A host of political and socioeconomic factors collided during this era to end filmmaking by most noncommercial filmmakers, but some government agencies continued to make movies for causes ranging from education to propaganda. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, was one of the earliest agencies to produce films, and it did so for a long period after the demise of other noncommercial ventures (MacCann, 1973). Given the enormous role of agriculture in the American economy—and in the history of race relations—surprisingly little scholarly attention has been devoted to the study of these films, however, despite the fact that the USDA’s “films on scientific and technical subjects, forestry and fire prevention, agricultural education and soil conservation have been a responsibility which has served the people well” (MacCann, 1973, p. 55). Noble (1948) mentions one 1942 USDA film, Henry Brown, Farmer, “which depicts a small American farmer, a Negro, at work in the fields at home, emphasizing his contribution to the war effort” (p. 106). But African Americans played a critical role in USDA films well before the Forties, in early silent documentaries that have escaped notice even by scholars concerned with the African-American experience. This research analyzes how a silent film made by the Department of Agricultural in 1921, Helping Negroes Become Better Farmers and Homemakers, supported Jim Crow ideology. In brief, the film promotes the USDA’s outreach programs in rural southern African-American communities by locating the agent of economic and social change—locating, that is, the power and knowledge required to shift perceptions or practices—in the dominant White population, and this contradiction in its model of agricultural empowerment illuminates a critical period of history and of filmmaking.

Agricultural County Extension Service

The U.S. Department of Agriculture produced Helping Negroes Become Better Farmers and Homemakers in 1921. It relates the efforts in eastern Alabama to teach African Americans how to improve their farms and homes. The educators were agents of the Agricultural County Extension Service (ACES), created by The Smith-Lever Act of 1914. ACES tested business models and focused on helping farmers improve their living conditions and crop yields through advances in scientific farming. Its agents were headquartered at land-grant universities. In Alabama, the all-White land-grant university was Alabama Polytechnic Institute (API), located in Auburn (API changed [End Page 33] its name to Auburn University in 1960). Tuskegee Institute, in neighboring Macon County, was chosen as the center of Black extension work in Alabama. This selection is \significant because, although Tuskegee was founded by the Alabama State legislature in 1881, by 1883 it was a private school, which, by 1914, had already established its commitment to agricultural outreach. From its beginning, Tuskegee had focused on helping Blacks with agricultural instruction. Founder Booker T. Washington had initiated and developed the basis of extension work long before the 1914 Smith-Lever Act (Neyland, 1990). The choice of Tuskegee was inevitable, then, because it had provided the very model and means of the work portrayed in Helping Negroes Become Better Farmers and Homemakers. However, the movie portrays Whites, not Blacks, as the principal agents of the programs and work in Alabama, and, as this paper will explain, this version of history neatly reinforced the ideology...