DRAWING THE LINE: Segregation in the NC Extension Service

The North Carolina Extension Service

4-H Club Girl Posing in Kitchen with Jars of Preserved Food

This 4-H participant is posing in her kitchen with jars of food that she has preserved. Food preservation and canning was just one aspect of the North Carolina Extension Service. 

The North Carolina Extension Service was originally a way for the land-grant colleges in the state to use their knowledge of agricultural practices to help local farmers.  For many years, North Carolina was a predominately rural state where most families made their living from farming.  In most cases, these were small family farms where the main goal was to grow enough food to feed your own family and make enough profit from the extra crops to buy the goods that you could not grow yourself, such as clothing, sugar, etc. 

The North Carolina Extension Service formed out of North Carolina State University, then known as State College, because it was the first land-grant institution in North Carolina.  Eventually, the African American branch of the Extension Service began to work out of another land-grant institution, North Carolina A&T.  The goal of the Extension Service was to bring newer and better farming practices and techniques to farming families in the community so that they could live better and healthier lives. Sometimes, this meant that educational programs designed by middle-class men and women stationed at State College and North Carolina A&T were imposed upon poor rural families who did not want to change their eating, cooking, or farming practices. Class was a sometimes strained issue in the Extension Service, further complicated by race and gender.

When the United States fell into the Great Depression in the 1930s, followed by World War II in the 1940s, the Extension Service evolved.  Instead of just encouraging farming families to become better farmers for their own benefit, extension agents also urged farmers to be better for the nation as a whole.  By growing enough crops to feed your own family, you would be able to survive the Great Depression and not have to take from the food rations needed by United States soldiers in World War II.  Additionally, the Extension Service began to encourage the youth from farming families to grow and can their own crops to sell.  This helped with food shortages and boosted the local economies.

Eventually the North Carolina Extension Service split into different branches.  In addition to the agricultural agents discussed above, women started to be trained as home demonstration agents.  Local home demonstration agents mainly assisted women and girls from farming families.  They drew on informational packets produced by official nutritionists and scientists at State College and North Carolina A&T, thus spreading government and campus educational initiatives across the state.  They focused on skills such as food preservation and canning, baking, and other domestic skills such as child-rearing and sewing.  Some topics were more welcome by audiences than others. Additionally, 4-H programs began to develop for the youth of farming families.  4-H taught many of the same skills that the agricultural and home demonstration agents did, but focused on a younger audience.  Local competitions were also help annually for 4-H participants to demonstrate the skills they had learned. 

North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T both played major roles in the way that North Carolinians farm and eat.  Through the Extension Service, both institutions were able to teach members of farming communities how to be more self-sufficient in order to better provide for themselves and their families.  Although farm families sometimes perceived the extension agents to be middle-class outsiders, audiences usually found common ground in the fact that agents were of the same race and gender as they were.  Extension agents taught North Carolinians how to raise better livestock and crops, how to can and preserve their own food for consumption year round, and how to best market and sell the goods they grew.  The North Carolina Extension Service greatly influenced the way that all North Carolinians consume and produce food.