The Farmers Improvement Society, a Photo Essay of Black Agency and Community Development in the Jim Crow South (Part 3)

Editor’s note: This is the third 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 II can be found here.

By Kirin Makker

Photo of Robert L. Smith, F.I.S. brochure, c. 1900. Texas Collection, Baylor University.

Though a story about a scattered community, the history of the Farmers Improvement Society (FIS) serves as a narrative about the production of Black space operating in resistance to white Main Street through the promotion of enterprise and cooperative economics. The society’s founder R.L. 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 families’ economic prospects.[1]

Offering a decentered and aggregate economic and social community to rural blacks in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, the FIS created an alternative to white Main Street during Jim Crow. During its existence, the FIS 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 congregate over a long weekend. Eventually, the Society 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 produced physical and conceptualized Black space and enterprise in ways that insulated members from Jim Crow and, in fact, subverted it in moments. Flourishing between 1890 and the 1920s, the society gradually folded by World War II. [2]   

The following photo essay pulls together a series of documents from the Texas Collection, which houses the archives of the Farmers Improvement Society and the Smith family. Each image offers readers engagement with the work of the society beyond numbers, adding richness to the society’s story. They are material culture relics, pieces of the society as it lived in the everyday lives of its members. 

Farmers Improvement Society Insurance

One major area of insecurity for Black farming families was lack of life insurance for Black men and lack of sick and burial insurance in general. White companies were guided by blanket industry standards identifying Black people as too risky to insure due to social diseases within the race. If insurance was offered, Black head of households were offered policies worth generally one-third less than those offered to whites.[3] The FIS Policy offered a vital tool for generational wealth-building for rural Black families. For ten cents a month, a parent or guardian bought a policy that guaranteed financial support in the event of their sickness or death. Payouts varied from $1 to $25 according to the condition of the treasury. These numbers shifted upwards later with increased cost of living.[4] 

Farmers Improvement Society of Texas Bank Certificate, October 7, 1904, Texas Collection, Baylor University.

FIS Membership List

Members paid ten cents annually to belong to the Society. Depending on the size of the family and how many contributing earners a household had, membership could be held by one or more adult family members, usually the same individuals that held sickness and death insurance. Children were not members outside of a later-formed juvenile branch. Any Black community could form an FIS branch with a minimum of ten members. The branches listed are the names of villages, crossroads, and segregated neighborhoods of larger towns scattered mostly throughout East Texas.[5]     

F.I.S. membership list, no date. Texas Collection, Baylor University.

FIS newspaper, The Helping Hand

Smith saw value in community connection, in the sharing of knowledge, resources, and support through regular and frequent reminders of an organization’s presence and faith in their membership. In 1897, Smith and some other leadership in the Black business district of Waco started The Helping Hand. Branches announced news of their members, community successes and losses. R.L. Smith and others, including his wife, Ruby Smith, wrote pieces about the organization, benefits of membership, as well as inspirational essays and educational materials on farming. Here, Mrs. Smith discusses a Juvenile branch of the FIS that she started 1919. The Helping Hand ran until 1935.

F.I.S Helping Hand, November 2019. Texas Collection, Baylor University.

Encampments and Convocations 

FIS gatherings were held throughout Texas, parts of Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Anywhere between a couple and several branches would host these gatherings, often in the summer months. These had several purposes, from community-building, to managing society benefits, to sharing farming knowledge. Branches shared membership news, elected new branch officers, and mounted exhibitions on farming and home life. People gave speeches, sang together, and celebrated the year’s harvest and family news. Finally, members could settle loan and insurance business with the Society. R.L. Smith and his wife personally attended these events to give addresses and officiate over the work of the organization and its finances, traveling throughout the summer months. Both the FIS College and the Women’s Barnyard Auxiliary produced exhibitions and gave presentations on how to raise chickens and make butter at home, can vegetables, and cure meat.[6]

F.I.S. Convocation Gathering Announcement, no date. Texas Collection, Baylor University.
F.I.S. Farm Display exhibit, no date. Texas Collection, Baylor University.
F.I.S. Farm Display, July 9, 1919. Texas Collection, Baylor University.
F.I.S. convocation gathering, no date. Texas Collection, Baylor University.

FIS Agricultural College

In 1906, R.L. Smith and a group of progressive Black farmers helped the society purchase land in Wolfe City, Texas, about 150 miles northwest of Waco, where Smith had resettled in the early 1890s. At the time of the College’s opening, Black children in remote rural areas of Texas were generally only able to access public education through about age ten. Besides the negro high schools in Texarkana and Paris, Northeast Texas offered no institutions for Black families past elementary education. Smith also wanted to find a way to teach his people methods in scientific farming, which was being delivered through Experiment Stations supported by the Department of Agriculture. Smith was concerned that Black farmers were going to be excluded from modernity and the advance of industry. Having decided to work within an accommodationist approach to managing the oppression of white supremacy, he also believed that white society would be more accepting of Black peoples’ advancement if their main path to self-improvement was subsistence farming, given that it was a “feasible way of living with no destructive competition.” Smith knew of similar efforts to develop agricultural education opportunities in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Georgia and was convinced of their value.[7]

            The FIS College was funded privately through donations, mostly from Black families in Texas. It offered high school preparatory classes aimed at assisting young men and women to pursue teaching or a prosperous family farming life. The School’s proclaimed objective was to “train for leadership in rural life.”  The curriculum was taught through six departments offering courses in literature, composition, Latin, algebra, history, science, domestic arts, and practical agricultural education covering horticulture, floriculture, animal husbandry, poultry raising, and canning. All students and faculty divided their time between academic instruction and practicums in cultivating peach and pecan orchards, corn, oats, and vegetables, that reinforced practical life lessons for living in the country. Smith regularly taught there when he was not traveling to FIS encampments and convocations. The College closed in 1947.[8]

Above: From left to right, F.I.S. College Pamphlet c. 1910; F.I.S Class Photo, 1913; Girls in front of F.I.S. School, 1913. Texas Collection, Baylor University.

F.I.S. College photo, Robert L. Smith is second from left. Based on clothing, photo is probably from 1920s. Texas Collection, Baylor University.

Farmers Improvement Society Bank

In 1907 the FIS purchased a two-story building at 109 Bridge Street, in the Black business district of Waco, Texas. One year later Smith opened the Farmers Improvement Society Bank. The primary purpose of the bank was to provide low interest loans to FIS members, but it also functioned as the organization’s headquarters. Smith and others managed the Society’s property, policies, and finances. Later, a print shop was opened to produce the society’s newspaper, The Helping Hand (1918-1935). Smith ultimately wanted this bank to not only support FIS credit but also promote the formation and support of other farmers business associations. The bank failed in September 1930, unable to make it through the 1929 U.S. stock market crash.[9] 

FIS Overall Factory

In 1914 Smith started a Farmers Improvement Society Overalls Company in Waco near the FIS Bank. Very little is known about it other than that it likely folded when the bank did. 

F.I.S. coveralls factory Waco, Texas, c. 1914. Texas Collection, Baylor University.

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. Unless noted, images presented in this essay belong to the Texas Collection and are reproduced here with their permission. 


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 (www.wombchairspeaks.net), 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 (https://linktr.ee/kirinmakker) will lead to more about her other digital projects.

Featured image (at top): The by-laws of the Farmers Improvement Society offered a path to emancipation from credit through a sequential process up a platform to “industrial and economic freedom.” FIS logo, 1925, Texas Collection, Baylor University.


[1] The Farmers Improvement Society: An Interesting Dialogue about Its Objects and Methods (Victoria, TX: Guide Print, [c. 1900]), 3. FIS Collection, box 11, folder 6, Texas Collection, Baylor University.

[2] Lawrence D. Rice, “Farmers’ Home Improvement Society,” Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Association, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/aaf03. In a published interview with R.L. Smith, Smith was asked, “What is the society for? Is it a social, religious, political or business organization?” and Smith answered, “It is a business organization pure and simple.” The Farmers Improvement Society: An Interesting Dialogue about its Objects and Methods.

[3] John S. Haller, “Race, Mortality, and Life Insurance: Negro Vital Statistics in the Late Nineteenth Century.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 25, no. 3 (1970): 247-61.

[4] The Farmers Improvement Society: An Interesting Dialogue about Its Objects and Methods, 16-17. 

[5] The Farmers Improvement Society: An Interesting Dialogue about Its Objects and Methods,. 17.

[6] R.L. Smith, “An Uplifting Negro Cooperative Society,” in The World’s Work, eds. Walter Hines Page and Arthur Wilson Page., Vol. 16 (New York:  Doubleday, 1908), 10462-10466. “Oral Memoirs of Lonnie Belle Hodges,” interview by Vivienne Malone-Myers on August 30, 1990, in Waco, Texas.  See history of Bridge Street https://www.baylor.edu/oralhistory/index.php?id=931734.

[7] “Farmers Improvement School Helpful in Training Negro Youth for Leadership in Rural Life; R.L. Smith Again at Helm,” The Wolf City Sun, Sept. 13, 1940.

[8] “Farmers Improvement School, F.I.S. College,” Fanning County Historical Commission, https://www.fannincountyhistory.org/farmers–improvement-school.html.

[9] Malone-Myers, “Oral Memoirs of Lonnie Belle Hodges.” See history of Bridge Street https://www.baylor.edu/oralhistory/index.php?id=931734.  Brian M. Simmons, “Texas Over Time: Bride Street, Waco,” Texas Collection, Sept. 9, 2014, https://blogs.baylor.edu/texascollection/2014/09/09/texas-over-time-bridge-street-waco/.

 

 

 

 

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