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Campbell, Thomas M.(1883–1956) - Agricultural extension agent, educator, Leaving Home for an Education, Chronology, Farming as an Academic Subject

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From its beginning until the 1960s the Alabama Extension Service was racially segregated. When Thomas M. Campbell was hired in 1906, he became the first African American extension agent in the nation. He became supervising agent in 1910 and held the post until he retired in 1953. Using a “Movable School,” Campbell and his agents, who worked out of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, conducted classes for isolated farm families who were unable to attend the courses on campus. His work revolutionized black farming in the South. He also led the farmers to improve and enhance their homes and to provide better health care for their families. He addressed the needs of the woman in the home and on the farm and stressed education for children.

Thomas Monroe Campbell was born on February 11, 1883, in Elbert County, Georgia, near the small town of Bowman, about twenty-five miles from the South Carolina state line. He was the grandson of slaves and the son of William Campbell, an itinerant Methodist minister and tenant farmer. His mother, whose name is not given in known sources, died in childbirth when he was five years old. She had a long and fatal illness, exacerbated by her hard work as washerwoman and farmhand in the family’s struggle to pay for their home where the parents and six children lived. They also had barely enough food.

Before the Campbells lost their home due to an unpaid mortgage, they lived next to a public school where young Thomas attended briefly. William Campbell neglected his family while working as an itinerant preacher but gave way to community criticism and later hired an aunt to care for the children. The arrangement failed; William Campbell remarried and brought home his second wife and her three children. He married again and his third wife, a school teacher with some training from Spelman Seminary (later Spelman College) in Atlanta, was unsuccessful in encouraging the father to send his son Thomas to school.

Leaving Home for an Education

At the age of fifteen, Thomas Campbell left home on January 2, 1899, without his family’s knowledge and headed for Tuskegee. He had ten cents in his pocket, collected twenty-five cents from Aunt Cynthia Berryman—supposedly a relative—and was on his way. En route, Campbell worked here and there and arrived on campus around April 29, 1899. He was enrolled as unclassified and took the lowest courses offered in the agriculture program. To help support himself, Campbell was assigned to the livestock division where he worked at several tasks. His brother, who had been a student at Tuskegee and helped to guide him during his early days at school, died when an epidemic of typhoid and malaria broke out at the school. Campbell caught the fever as well but recovered.


1883 Born in Elbert County, Georgia on February 11

1906 Graduates from Tuskegee Institute in Alabama

1906 Operates the first Jessup Wagon or Movable School of Agriculture; becomes country’s first black agricultural demonstration agent

1909 Becomes district agent for agricultural extension

1918 Becomes field agent for seven southern states

1944 Studies agriculture and rural education in West Africa

1945 Publishes The Movable School Goes to the Negro

1956 Dies in Montgomery, Alabama on February 9

Although he worked hard to support himself, Campbell scarcely had the bare minimum of clothing. His feet were large and he had difficulty wearing the clothes offered to him by his friends; he was too proud to do so anyway. Often he refused to accept invitations to dinner in the homes of the families whom he had served as carriage driver because his clothes were unsuitable. During the seven years that Campbell was a student at Tuskegee, he received from home only two dollars in cash and one suit of clothes. But he did participate in the institute’s choir, continued to work in the agricultural department, and caught the eye of the school’s president Booker T. Washington, who made regular visits around the school farm each morning.

Farming as an Academic Subject

Washington knew that his students and faculty had little respect for farming as an academic program; consequently, Washington held Sunday evening talks in which he introduced the students in the department and also emphasized the importance of developing rural life for blacks in the South. Campbell also served as driver of Washington’s buggy and took care of the horses that were assigned to the president. This experience put him in touch with many of the distinguished visitors who came to the campus. They included black and white people of some acclaim who came to discuss race problems.

As he approached his last two years at Tuskegee, Campbell began to set some career goals; he resolved to work in some phase of agriculture. He graduated in 1906 and had just begun advanced study when Booker T. Washington recommended him for the federal post of Negro Extension Agent. In the summer of 1910, he enrolled in the graduate agricultural program at Iowa State College, where Tuskegee scientist George Washington Carver had also studied.

The Movable School of Agriculture

Washington was so concerned with the plight of black farmers and the need to raise practical farming to a higher level that he brought Carver to the campus for that purpose. On Saturdays and Sundays, both Washington and Carver had taken demonstration exhibits to rural black communities. In 1896 Washington induced the Alabama State Legislature to pass a law creating the Tuskegee Agricultural Experiment Station which Carver directed; he traveled the county on weekends to assist farmers. Throughout his administration, Washington continued to visit black families in their homes. Tuskegee held its first annual Negro Farmers Conference in February 1892; five hundred people attended. Out of that grew agricultural extension work for blacks. Washington realized a need to reach the black masses, including those who did not attend the conferences and those in adjacent counties. He conceived the idea of itinerant demonstrations which he called the “Movable School of Agriculture.”

Carver headed a committee to plan for a demonstration wagon and to determine what equipment it should carry to farmers’ doors. Then he solicited philanthropist Morris K. Jesup of New York, who donated funds for the wagon. The Jesup Agricultural Wagon, as it was officially named, was equipped and put in operation on May 24, 1906, under the guidance of the agricultural faculty. The wagon was also referred to as “a farmers’ college on wheels.” The federal government accepted the wagon, and it became the vehicle for the demonstration agent to use in reaching black farmers. Washington was committed to addressing the needs of women who worked in fields and in homes; thus, the operator of the wagon was instructed to meet these needs. The equipment of the wagon varied according to the season; for example, in spring there was a portable garden with growing vegetables; instructions were given on how to plant the garden, how to fertilize it, and demonstrations given on how to plow the field.

Demonstration Agent

From 1902 to 1910, Seaman Asahel Knapp headed the General Education Board (GEB) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and originated the idea of farmers’ cooperative demonstration work in the South. Washington and Knapp drew up “A Memorandum of Agreement between Tuskegee Institute and the General Education Board,” dated November 9, 1906 and published in the Booker T. Washington Papers for 1906 to 1908. The GEB would pay the salary of the agent who would serve the program, Thomas M. Campbell, and he would be paid $840 per year. Both Washington and Carver recommended Campbell for the job. He was hired on November 12, becoming the country’s first black demonstration agent. Since he worked through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he was a federal employee assigned to Tuskegee. White agents worked out of the administrative headquarters at Alabama Polytechnic Institute at Auburn (subsequently Auburn University), while the black agents were headquartered at Tuskegee. They were also responsible to the state’s administrative headquarters. Although Campbell began his work in Macon County, the location of Tuskegee, he took the Movable Agricultural School throughout the state. In 1909 he was promoted to district agent and supervised and instructed other agents. Agents who followed him operated the Movable School until World War II. Use of such a school also spread to Europe, East Asia, India, and Africa. The practice of carrying education to rural people appealed to leaders in other countries, and sometimes visitors from these countries came to Tuskegee to see the Movable Agricultural School firsthand and to discuss the work of the extension program.

Field Agent

In 1918, Campbell was promoted to field agent, in which role he had responsibility for seven lower southern states. He met with state directors of extension who kept watch over extension service to black farmers and their families in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas. By then the black land-grant colleges in the seven southern states trained students to work as extension agents. Campbell met with the presidents of these colleges and advised them as appropriate. He aided farm and civic organizations by providing advice and giving practical help to black farmers. Continuing the focus of the farmers’ conferences held earlier, he gave guidance on the improvement of life in the communities. As the work progressed, he led country agents into then-modern conveniences, such as electricity, improved water systems, and sanitary toilet facilities in the rural areas. They learned to use modern farm techniques as well as the importance of rotating crops, feeding and care of animals, poultry-raising, gardening, and growing fruits.

In 1944 the General Education Board appointed Campbell to a three-member commission to study agriculture and rural education among peoples in West Africa. Over a six-month period, he visited Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon, examining farmers’ methods of preparing soil, planting, and cultivating crops. He studied the work of experiment stations there and sampled local diets to learn about local health and nutrition practices. The results of the study were published in Africa Advancing (Friends Press, 1945).


Campbell described his extension work in several articles that were published in leading agricultural journals. He also published The Movable School Goes to the Negro Farmer (Tuskegee Institute Press, 1936). He had begun a history of extension work in the South, sponsored by the Ford Foundation, but died before the work was completed. Although Campbell had an interest in the black folk tradition and began to collect information from former slaves whom he met in his work, that work was also left incomplete. According to Joellyn Pryce El-Bashir, singer Roland Hayes credits Campbell for collecting the words and music for the spiritual, “He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word.” Hayes sang the spiritual in a 1923 concert.

Recognition and Awards

Beyond the field of agriculture, Campbell’s interests included the Eugene Field Society of the National Association of Authors and Journalists, of which he was a member. His outstanding agricultural work brought many recognitions; among these, the Harmon Award for outstanding service in farming and rural life (1930); honorary M.S. degree, Tuskegee Institute (1936); and Length of Service and Superior Service Awards, USDA. On January 13, 1952, Tuskegee dedicated a marker commemorating his work and the beginning of extension activities among rural blacks.

On June 11, 1911, Campbell married Tuskegee graduate Annie M. Ayers of Virginia. They had four children: Thomas Jr., Carver, Virginia, and William. Campbell attended a meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956 and was found dead in his hotel room, on February 9, apparently of natural causes.

Although greatly influenced by Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, Campbell went beyond their teaching to expand the scope of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in agricultural extension service for black farmers. His work made Tuskegee the center of agricultural extension form for blacks in the Deep South.

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