The Government Workers Who Combated Racism in the Jim Crow South

In her new book, geographer Mona Domosh documents how Black government employees helped promote Black ownership of land and homes in the early decades of the 20th century. 

In probing the origins of various regions and communities, historical geographer Mona Domosh often documents struggles against oppression and subjugation.
From land use and agricultural systems to the design of urban spaces and government assistance programs, she says, nearly every element of community existence is shaped by racial and gender bias.
In her latest book, Disturbing Development in the Jim Crow South, Domosh shows how Black employees of the United States Department of Agriculture helped promote Black ownership of land and homes through targeted government programs, quietly but powerfully resisting the white supremacy that gripped the South in the late 19th- and early 20th centuries.
At Dartmouth, Domosh serves as the Joan P. and Edward J. Foley Jr. 1933 Professor of Geography. Among her many publications and honors, she co-edited the field-defining 2020 book, The SAGE Handbook of Historical Geography, which provides an overview of historical geography and its interdisciplinary connections with the humanities, social sciences, and sciences.
In a Q&A, Domosh discusses the revelation that led to her study of USDA workers in the Jim Crow South, and how conducting research in Tuskegee, Ala., inspired her next scholarly project.
How did this book come about?

I spent many years working on another project that looked at the ways in which U.S.companies in the early 20th century became global before the United States was a global power.
One of these companies was called International Harvester, which made and sold farm equipment. I spent a lot of time researching this company at their archives. One of the places where the company was active abroad was in Argentina. So I was in the Argentina archive folder and I said to the archivist, "Oh, something's been misfiled: There's something in here about Alabama."
And he said, "You're right, this should be in another folder. But did you know that this company had huge interests in the American South?" And he took me into the back and opened a door to a whole different room and said, "This is all their material about Alabama and Georgia." I was like, "What is going on here?"
Just as they liked to say that they were helping peasants in Argentina and Russia modernize, International Harvester's promotional division was in effect saying, "We are going to help poor Black farmers in the American South." It turns out that they spent a good deal of money and time sending their agricultural 'experts' to Alabama and Georgia as part of a large advertising campaign.

How did you come to understand that this was part of a broader trend? 

I began to realize it was more than just International Harvester. The American government, through the United States Department of Agriculture, was also very concerned with what they considered the backward farming methods in the South, a region that produced the country's most profitable export: cotton. A lot of the impetus to fully fund the USDA's Cooperative Extension Service—a network for training agricultural experts who then were meant to assist farmers—stemmed from the concerns over cotton production in the South. And given that federal agencies were segregated, the Cooperative Extension Service in the South comprised two units: a white one and a Black one. 
After a good deal of work, I began to see that Black USDA agents were doing something different from white agents, and I had to ask myself how and why. What I realized is that Black agents faced a quagmire: how to practice rural improvement in ways that supported Black farmers' lives within the system of plantation agriculture that characterized the Jim Crow South, a system that relied on the devaluing of those lives. These Black USDA agents, then, were engaged on a daily basis in a difficult and subtle balancing act: trying to support Black farmers without raising local white supremacists' ire, all the while legitimizing their work to the USDA.  

My book details how they accomplished this—how, in other words, they sometimes translated USDA's directives, sometimes transformed those directives, and sometimes created their own directives in order to support poor Black farmers by teaching them about food production, health care, and promoting land and home ownership.
How did these Black USDA agents go about this?

For example, one division of the Cooperative Extension Service involved Black home demonstration agents who were given money to help women become 'proper' housewives. But that simply was not possible for most Black farm women, who constituted one-half of the labor force. So while white home extension agents were increasingly using government funds to turn white farmwives into better consumers—looking at how to design their living rooms, how to have better carpets, and where to buy the best new appliances, for example—the Black agents didn't do that at all. They doubled down on their original work, which was to teach women how to prepare meals while they were also working; how to be health caregivers, because there was no form of health care; and how to produce clothing.
Another form of help was the development of what was called the "movable school." White farmers would come into one of the county offices and take classes and go to demonstrations to learn how to improve. But of course, Black sharecroppers and tenant farmers had little time or resources to make this possible. So Black USDA agents developed what was called the movable school—at first using a horse and wagon and later a large truck—to literally take the lessons out into the field. Eventually the truck was staffed with a nurse.
What's next for you?

To conduct the research for Disturbing Development in the Jim Crow South, I spent a lot of time in Tuskegee, in the heart of the Cotton Belt, because the Black division of the USDA's Cooperative Extension Service was based there.
In the first decades of the 20th century, trains in the region went directly to Chicago, and many Black immigrants took the route north, arriving in what was called the "Black Belt" of the city, a fairly narrow swath of land, barely a mile wide, that ran south from 29th Street between the city's large stockyards to the west and the lakefront to the east. 
I'm looking at a set of Black organizations in the Black Belt that found ways to create spaces of freedom in the city. The first case I'm examining is the Chicago Urban League. The organization was heavily involved in the struggles to bring affordable housing to the area, and fought tirelessly in the 1930s to obtain federal support for public housing. Today we tend to think that  public housing was horrible; but at the time, in 1934 and 1935, it provided an escape from the cramped and overpriced housing that most Black families had to endure. I'm trying to understand how Black people, communities, and networks devised strategies that maintained claims on spaces and created thriving communities.