Black History Month Spotlight: T.M. Campbell -- America's first Extension agent

Campbell was a trail blazer and pioneer, with a legacy of innovation, education and community outreach that set a standard the nationwide Cooperative Extension system uses today

Thomas Monroe Campbell circa 1906.
Thomas Monroe Campbell circa 1906.

When we think of important dates in the history of Cooperative Extension, the passage of the Smith-Lever Act in 1914 is often the first thing that comes to mind. The Smith-Lever Act is credited with the formation of Extension, as it provided the funding which supported the creation of Extension programs across the country to apply research and provide education that would grow to include agriculture, community development, natural resources and 4-H. While the passage of Smith-Lever is certainly worth celebrating, the history of Extension goes back a bit farther than that.

It was at Tuskegee University where the first Cooperative Extension program in the United States began, and Thomas Monroe Campbell, a graduate of Tuskegee, was the first Extension agent employed by a Cooperative Extension program. Related work, including Tuskegee’s famous Farmers Institute, and the US Department of Agriculture’s Farmers’ Cooperative Demonstration Work had begun prior to the development of Tuskegee’s Extension program and Campbell’s appointment, together with the appointment of W.C. Stallings, that began the growth of Cooperative Extension and the spread of its work.

Campbell, more commonly known as T.M. Campbell, was a joint employee of Tuskegee Institute and the USDA, and was appointed as an agricultural agent in Macon and Wilcox counties in Alabama. In this role, Campbell was charged with educating rural farmers in advanced farming and land-management methods. He proceeded to grow southern Cooperative Extension efforts, and by the time of the Smith-Lever Act had assisted 11 other southern states in appointing African-American Extension agents.

Campbell made use of the “Jesup Agricultural Wagon,” named for the man who provided the funding to equip and operate the demonstration wagon, which became known as the Tuskegee Movable School. The Moveable School was Campbell’s primary method of facilitating the growth and development of Extension work throughout rural communities. The wagon was outfitted with seeds, fertilizers, and the tools to carry out practical demonstrations with farmers and homemakers.

Campbell continued his influential Extension career for nearly 50 years, advancing from a county agent to a state agent in Alabama, and then becoming a field agent for USDA, with seven southern states in his territory. He was the first African-American to be appointed as a USDA field agent. Campbell’s mind for innovation, education and community outreach left a legacy on the development of Extension programs throughout the country that is reflected in the work Extension does all across the country today.

Did you find this article useful?