A Fort Valley State University alumnus is shining a light on an organization that existed nearly 100 years ago. Those roots run deep as this brotherhood provided a space for young African American men to grow into leaders and supporters of agriculture.
Dr. Dexter Wakefield, a 1990 FVSU graduate, joined forces with friends Dr. Antoine Alston and Netta Cox of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University to produce a pictorial, “The Legacy of the New Farmers of America.”
New Farmers of America (NFA) was a student-based organization dating back to 1927 that supported African American males in agriculture.
“It was running in unison with the Future Farmers of America (FFA), one of the largest student-based organizations in the nation,” Wakefield explained. “It started around the same time so that Black men would have an organization for student development. At its peak, the NFA had more than 60,000 members involved in agriculture. This was before the integration of women in 1969.”
The FVSU alumnus said today, there are only about 40,000 Black men and women total involved in FFA.
“NFA provided teacher and agriculture training and career success for Black men,” Wakefield said. He added that there were only two NFA camps in the nation. One was S.B. Simmons Camp in North Carolina, and the other was Camp John Hope in Fort Valley, Georgia, near FVSU.
“I attended summer camp at Camp John Hope when I was a little kid,” recalled Wakefield, who grew up in Quitman, Georgia, where his father was his agricultural teacher, and his mother was his business teacher. “The camp still has NFA material in the archives, but not many people know about it.”
He said the camp provided leadership development for Black youths for many years.
“They taught Black kids how to swim, arts and craft, and teamwork. All those skills related to being effective as a citizen,” he emphasized. He noted many members from Georgia were actively involved in NFA as state and national officers, including several FVSU graduates like the late Josiah Phelps and Ira Hicks.
Wakefield said it took more than 20 years to complete the book. He started this research back in 1997 when working on his dissertation at Purdue University for a doctorate in agriculture Extension and education. His extensive background in education and working for the National FFA prepared him for creating this valuable resource to showcase forgotten history.
The Wildcat received his degree in agricultural education from FVSU and proudly served as a member of the Blue Machine Marching Band and Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity. Part of a legacy, he is among more than 30 family members who graduated from FVSU. He now serves as professor and interim dean for the School of Agriculture and Applied Sciences at Alcorn State University in Mississippi.
Adding this book to his list of accomplishments, Wakefield said this project is significant because there is not a lot of information available about African Americans in agriculture.
“Many people are unaware, and it is important for them to learn about this history,” he stressed.
Wakefield learned firsthand from his father, who taught adult classes at night for the Black farmers in Quitman.
“He educated them about emerging technologies in agriculture,” Wakefield said. “Many of them did not have a high school education, but they listened to my dad. This was a generation of individuals who were taught how to be a man, husband and leader.”
He said throughout the book, readers can see the progression of Black men dedicated to leadership, success and being a role model to their communities and society.
“That is what these pictures depict when you look at the faces of these men,” Wakefield declared.
The next phase is highlighting the NFA voices through interviews of former members to further expand the knowledge of the organization.
“If you don’t learn from your history, you will learn it the next time it comes around,” he said, noting his father would remind him of this. “If we hide our past, the next generation will take for granted that their pathway was easy.”
For that reason, Wakefield uses his educational platform and memorable experiences at FVSU to impact youths.
“I chose this pathway because I can work with students to help them achieve their dreams by looking at my past – the good and the bad. My dad helped others, which gave me the light. I am trying to keep the torch going,” he said. His son is majoring in agriculture at Alcorn, and his daughter is studying animal science at Tuskegee University.
“The Legacy of the New Farmers of America” is available on Amazon at https://bit.ly/3YVVUer.