Robert L. Smith, the Farmers Improvement Society, and Black Community Development in the Jim Crow South

Editor’s note: This is the second post in a three part series by Kirin Makker exploring Black community building in rural towns during the Jim Crow era. Click here to see Part I. Part III can be found here.

By Kirin Makker

Robert L. Smith was a black politician and social entrepreneur during the rise of Jim Crow. He founded the Farmers Improvement Society (FIS) of Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas specifically to economically and socially uplift his people. At the time Smith founded the FIS, the fundamental self-help organization for African Americans was the church. Between 1866 and 1903, for example, just looking at records of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, membership numbers went from 73,000 to approximately 760,000, and the number of churches from 286 to 5,831. Both the Methodist and Baptist churches supported educational institutions all over the country, a second type of self-help organization for African Americans. But for the rurally scattered Black citizen, their primary needs were in the areas of insurance and banking. These two financial concerns had the capacity to make or break a family, and this was where Smith ultimately focused his attention.

Robert Lloyd Smith, who went by R.L. in his writings and correspondence, was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1861 to free parents. He grew up literate, attending Charleston public schools where his mother was a teacher. He attended the Avery Normal School, a Black private school, for his secondary education and then received a bachelor’s degree from Atlanta University. Over the course of his youth, he witnessed and personally felt Jim Crow bear down and destroy his opportunities. He had begun his degree at the University of South Carolina in 1875, only to be barred from returning in 1877 by the state legislature, as White politicians began to segregate education. After he finished his degree at Atlanta University in 1879, he married and taught in South Carolina public schools for five years.[1] 

African American farmer’s home on St. Helena Island off Beaufort, South Carolina, Carl Mydans, 1936, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In 1882 Oakland Normal School for the education of Black school teachers opened. Oakland was a mixed town of just under 300 persons, segregated, and located about half way between San Antonio and Houston in Texas cotton country. At the time, the village had at least two churches, a few businesses, and a school for white children. The precise count of the Black population in Oakland at the time is not known, but it is believed that it was sizable and composed of mostly displaced, formerly enslaved individuals. Most of the property in town was owned by white residents. Less than a handful of homes were owned by Black families; most rented from whites. All but one of these homes was a single room.[2] 

Smith moved to Oakland in 1885 to become a principle at the school for Black teachers. For four years he taught and oversaw Oakland Normal School, getting to know his community and talking at length with families about their struggles. Smith saw first-hand how rural Black families were effectively shut out of any route to self-improvement by a crippling credit system and little to no access to organized education. He had read about the success of small village improvement societies in the northeast, how they had fostered cleaner and safer communities, pride of place, community educational opportunities, and improved economic stability for their towns. In December 1889, Smith organized a meeting, calling together nearly every Black citizen of Oakland, and formed the first chapter of a Village Improvement Society in Oakland, Texas.[3]

A believer in “self-help” Smith saw home and neighborhood improvement as the first step toward uplifting the Black citizens of Oakland. Initial priorities were lessons in whitewashing, setting standards for tree-planting and pruning, valuing clean yards, grading their roads, and encouraging a sense of personal ownership over their homes, even if renting. One year later, they had beautified and increased pride of place in their neighborhoods, but failed to help move the number of Black homeowners upward.[4]

Smith’s goals were grander and more ambitious than village improvement. To Smith, the Society’s work was an extension of what he oversaw as principal of the Oakland Normal School—the path toward uplifting his race was to teach self-help, resourcefulness, and self-reliance through morality, industry, and thrift. Smith’s ideas were in line with many of his contemporaries, including Booker T. Washington, who argued a similar approach to racial prosperity through solidarity, acceptance of collective responsibility for improvement, and the promotion of projects that accommodated white supremacy more than challenged it. He “knew the realities of Southern race politics, as well as the boundary beyond which he would be considered dangerous, and thus he chose the accommodationist approach.”[5] In the mid 1890s, partly because his work and ideas didn’t threaten white Texans, Smith won a House seat in the State Legislature. During his two terms, he lobbied for Black education, introducing bills that would place Black trustees over Black schools and authorizing land purchases for Prairie View College, a historically Black institution founded in 1876. He also introduced other bills aimed at improving conditions of Black Texans, including the Landlord and Tenant Act and statutes outlawing lynching and election fraud. All of these bills were defeated by white Texans. Although Smith left the legislature in 1898, he continued to participate in state and national conferences of Black leadership. He served on the board of the Anne T. Jeanes Fund with Andrew Carnegie and Booker T. Washington, a foundation that worked to provide monetary aid to rural Black schools. In 1899 he assisted Booker T. Washington in a $500,000 endowment campaign for Tuskegee Institute. He was elected the first president of the Texas branch of the National Negro Business League when it was organized in 1907. Between 1902-1909, he was deputy United States marshal for the Eastern District of Texas, appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt and removed by President Taft.[6]

Smith was also well-versed in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had intellectually mapped self-help ideas in his published essays and sermons. In fact, Smith regularly integrated Emerson’s concepts and metaphors into his speeches and essays.[7] Smith understood that village improvement work was not the solution; prosperity for rural African Americans couldn’t possibly be addressed via property beautification and cleanliness habits. His people, as he put it, were in a state of “economic slavery.” Enslaved Black people may have been emancipated after the Civil War, but they needed a second emancipation—freedom from debt and financial insecurity.

Convocation poster for Texas Farmers Improvement Society, circa 1901, Texas Collection archives at Baylor University.

Largely based on contemporary studies arguing Black families were an insurance risk due to poor living conditions and insurmountable social diseases, white insurance companies racially discriminated against Black Americans during the era. Widely-read racist publications such as Frederick L. Hoffman’s Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro (1896) influenced whole industries to adopt prejudicial practices against Black families, effectively eliminating the possibility of attaining financial security in the form of bank loans or insurance. Some Black citizens were able to join groups such as the Masonic Lodge, the Odd Fellows, and Knights of Pythias to build prosperity, but these organizations predominantly met the needs of urban Blacks seeking support. For the rural Black farmer, these associations were out of reach and Jim Crow was everywhere.  Smith witnessed this first hand during his decades in Texas. He worked his entire life to produce viable, fair, and secure Black economic and social space by connecting Black homeowners across the region.

In 1901, the Farmers Home Improvement Society was chartered by Smith and other Black leaders in Texas (later to drop “Home” from their title). Number One in their Declaration of Purposes was “To abolish the credit system completely, or as much as lies in our power.” In line with Black Populist efforts around the country, Smith argued in an interview that the credit system forced his people to “mortgage themselves, their stock and their family,” leaving them “homeless and heartbroken,” with no incentive to learn how to raise more of their supplies at home. Any “shiftlessness” he saw among his race was due to the credit system.[8] 

The other four declared purposes of the organization were: education about agriculture and good farming practice to ensure the livelihood of future Black families; buying bulk supplies cooperatively to cut down on the practice of buying on credit at the local general store; aiding each other in sickness and death through disability and death benefits; and encouraging members to buy homes, and in owning property, take care to beautify and maintain it, including its grounds and immediate roadways, by planting shade trees and shrubbery. To Smith, cash-based living, economy, agricultural science, death benefits, and pride of place were all part of a formula for lifting Black families up out of an economically desperate situation. 

In 1900, when Smith was starting the FIS, it had 86 branches and 2,340 members. Ten years later it had chartered 1,056 branches spread over Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, had 21,000 members. and its cooperative business was estimated at $50,000 per year. In 1912 FIS members across these three states owned a total of 75,000 acres of land valued at over $1 million. It was between 1896 and 1912 that the organization experienced the most growth and flourished as Black space.[9]  

The Society operated as an organized network of people exchanging ideas through membership documents including a monthly newspaper The Helping Hand, chapter events, and regional encampments where several branches would meet together over a long weekend. The Society also eventually started a bank, an overalls factory, and an agricultural school, all of which hired Black men and women. The FIS, thus, not only operated as a community that met for regular gatherings; it also managed to produce Black space and enterprise physically and conceptually in ways that insulated their membership from Jim Crow, and in fact, subverted it to some extent. The Society flourished between 1890 and the 1920s, gradually folding by World War II.            

The story of the Farmers Improvement Society (FIS), although the history of a scattered society, is a narrative about the production of Black space operating in resistance to white Main Street through enterprise and cooperative economics. Smith insisted that the Society was not a social, religious, or political organization but rather a business organization created with the express purpose of improving Black southern home life and business methods. Ultimately, the FIS amounted to an alternative to white Main Street.  It was a decentered and aggregate economic and social community that bound together Black farmers in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas during Jim Crow for mutual prosperity. 

Kirin Makker is Associate Professor of Architecture and Urbanism in American Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. An interdisciplinary scholar and artist, she teaches, writes, and creatively explores histories of community, space, and power. She is currently working on two major projects: a participatory arts and activism piece called The Womb Chair Speaks (, and a 200-year history of planning and preservation in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, for the Library of American Landscape History. Her Instagram (@kirinmakker) is the best way to see what she and her students are making and her linktree ( will lead to more about her other projects and free downloads.

Featured image (at top): African American farmers shopping on Saturday afternoon in Liebowitz’s store, Greensboro, Greene County, Georgia. (1941). Jack Delano, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

My research at the Texas Collection archives at Baylor University was funded by the Wardlaw Fellowship Fund and I am grateful to that family and the Collection for their generous support. 

[1] Merline Pitre, “Robert Lloyd Smith: A Black Lawmaker in the Shadow of Booker T. Washington.” Phylon 46, no. 3 (1985): 262-68. doi:10.2307/274834.

[2] Houston Wade, “Oakland, TX (Colorado County),” Handbook of Texas Online,Texas State Historical Association, .  R.L. Smith, “An Uplifting Negro Cooperative Society,” 

[3] James Parton, “Village Improvement Societies,” Youths Companion (August 6, 1885). Pitre, “Robert Lloyd Smith.”

[4] The Farmers Improvement Society:  An Interesting Dialogue about its Objects and Methods (Victoria, TX: Guide Print, undated [ca. 1900]), Texas Collection, Baylor University, FIS Collection, Box 11, Folder 6.

[5] Pitre, “Robert Lloyd Smith.”

[6] Lawrence D. Rice, “Smith, Robert Lloyd (1861-1942)” Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Association, . “Prominent Colored Educator,” The Houston (TX) Daily Post, Dec. 16, 1899, p. 7. .

[7] Handwritten essay/speech by R.L. Smith, Texas Collection, Baylor University, Smith Cobb Collection, Box 18, Folder 12. 

[8] The Farmers Improvement Society:  An Interesting Dialogue about its Objects and Methods (Victoria, TX: Guide Print, undated [ca. 1900]), 14.  This document is in the Texas Collection, Baylor University, FIS Collection, Box 11, Folder 6.

[9] Texas Collection, FIS finding aid and Lawrence D. Rice, “Farmers’ Home Improvement Society,” Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Association, Robert Carroll, “Robert Lloyd Smith and the Farmers’ Improvement Society of Texas,” MA Thesis, Baylor University, 1974. There is some discrepancy about whether, at their height, the organization had 21,000 members or 12,000 members.  These two numbers are both reported. In an optimistic view, I am quoting the higher.  We know there were at least 1,056 branches in 1911 and if there were at least 20 people in each branch, there would be 21,120 members. If there were 12 people in each branch, that would be a total of 12,672 members. Either number might be correct. 

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