Texas AgriLife and Civil Rights

TAEX Basics: Questions Raised Early and Often about Civil Rights at the Texas (AgriLife) Agricultural Extension Services

By Greg Moses

One powerful component of the Texas higher education system has proved itself stubbornly impervious to the challenge of civil rights. Throughout the 20th century, the Texas Agricultural Extension Service (TAEX: now known as Texas AgriLife) has served as a textbook model of institutional segregation. And that tradition is in evidence today.

With its traditional headquarters at the College Station campus of Texas A&M University, TAEX reaches into virtually every county in the state, deploying an influential network of county agents whose work is supposed to bring cutting-edge science to the service of average citizens.

The figure of the county agent will be well known to rural readers, but with heavy demographic shifts to the city, more emphasis is slowly being given to urban and suburban concerns.

There are few agencies more poorly equipped to serve the average citizen of tomorrow than TAEX.

Roots in the Land Grant System

The politics of higher education in the United States cannot be understood if one ignores the hefty influence of the land grant network that serves as the foundation for TAEX and its related agencies across the nation.

Beginning soon after the Civil War, an historical revolution took place in higher education, as the U.S. government set aside vast tracts of land that would serve as endowments for a network of public colleges and universities. Hence the name “land grant college.” Famous institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell University, Purdue University, and Texas A&M University owe their origins to this world historical commitment.

At no time in history had any civilization given such priority to higher education for the masses.

The Vision Extends Outward

During the first decades of the 20th Century, progressive thinking extended the concept of education beyond the campus borders into the common affairs of town and country. As part of the movement, a national network was established of Cooperative Extension Services that would combine the resources of federal, state, and county agencies to “extend” the latest scientific discoveries for the improvement of everyday life.

Thus were born the “extension services,” administered in Washington, D.C., by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with state headquarters established in nearly every case upon traditional white campuses in the land grant network, and home offices in nearly every county in the nation.

To understand the collective posture of higher education in the U.S.A., it is crucial to see the hefty influence of these traditional, suburban, and predominantly white campuses. The Aggie effect, heavily funded by taxpayers at all levels, finds its institutional backbone along this historical pipeline of power, where might has always been white. It is this widely shared perspective that has helped to transform small amounts of cultural diversity into large headlines about cultural war.

With Hopes for Civil Rights

Perhaps no other single class of professionals in the U.S. had higher expectations of the Civil Rights era than did the black county agents who worked for the Cooperative Extension Services. Perhaps no group has been met with more persistent disappointments.

One can understand the hopes of black professionals employed at the behest of a federal agency in the age of Civil Rights. But it was not many years after 1964, when their grievances had already piled up.

Black county agents in Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas filed class action law suits that were nearly simultaneous and based around the same complaints–that the extension services were continuing to practice blatant segregation in the administration of their duties.

Against the Powers that Be

Today the TAEX administration continues to operate separate and unequal extension services with dual headquarters at College Station and Prairie View. The best evidence of integration may be found at Prairie View, where the numbers of black professionals are at alarming, historically low, levels. To find a time when TAEX employed fewer black professionals, one would have to search the record books of the Great Depression.

Racist Elites Flex Muscles in 2001

The resilience of racist values at Texas A&M has been lately symbolized by resistance to a statue on campus in honor of 19th Century Black State Senator Matthew Gaines, who fought for the establishment of the Land-Grant College System in Texas. As history professor Dale Baum argues, the statue has been put on hold despite widespread public support, because of the power of racist Aggie elites.

“Old Ag” is a term that Aggies use to name members of their own elite. The following links provide interesting evidence of the resilience of racist values in “Old Ag” culture at the dawn of the 21st Century.

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