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  • Writer's pictureWes Hazard

History Throwback:Free Black Labor for a European War

It's always interesting to look back and see the ways in which white American power structures in the food space have both relied upon the Black labor citizens while also limiting opportunity. Here we have a poster from 1918 seeking "patriotic colored men and women" in North Carolina to join "Uncle Sam's Saturday Service League", an effort by the land-grant universities of North Carolina & the North Carolina Department of Agriculture to boost food output in support of the war effort during WWI.

The document here speaks to the economic and production power of Black North Carolinians (flatly laying out statistics for how their donation of a Saturday afternoon of agricultural work could ensure a wartime food surplus for the state). However the poster fails to address the various ways in which the Black population that was being asked to give its sweat and time was simultaneously being denied opportunity by the very institutions making the request. (Not to mention the irony of a state where about 1/3 of the population had consisted of enslaved Black people working on farms and plantations before the Civil War asking the descendants of those slaves to work for free in support of a different war 60 years later....)

For context: In 1914 the federal Smith-Lever Act was passed creating a number of cooperative extension services across the country. In these programs the USDA, the state government, and local governments would work together with land grant universities in order to educate state populations (especially rural ones) about trends in agriculture and related fields. Extension agents and agricultural specialists would travel to farms and homes in order to offer training and consultation in topics such as increasing crop yields, starting home vegetable gardens, canning & preservation, equipment maintenance, etc.

In North Carolina the Extension program did serve both Black and white populations but was of course segregated with white agents sent to white areas and Black agents sent to Black areas of the state. As Black people in North Carolina were prohibited from attending all but one of the public agricultural colleges there was a frequent under-supply of specialists to assist them. Of the two universities named on this poster the North Carolina State College of Agriculture and Engineering (today's NC State) did not admit Black students until being forced to do so in 1956 in light of the Brown Vs. Board of Education ruling. The other one, North Carolina A&T State University (originally Agricultural and Mechanical College for the Colored Race) had been founded specifically so that white North Carolinians could prevent Black students from enrolling at NC State. And of course, any Black men who wanted to aid the war effort even more by actually enlisting found themselves the victims of discrimination and segregation in the armed forces of the time.

Here's another poster from a similar campaign of the time urging negro farmers to build and tend gardens for the war effort.

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