A Look Back at FFA in Alabama
Agricultural Education and FFA chapters will celebrate 100 years of the National Vocational Education Act of 1917 in February 2017. This act is better known as the Smith-Hughes Act. In the early 1900s, U.S. Senator Hoke Smith and U.S. Representative Dudley Hughes, both from Georgia, believed rural youth were not receiving their fair share of federal education dollars. The congressmen, representing mostly rural people, also believed rural youth deserved as much of a chance at education as their urban counterparts. Thus, the two men sponsored legislation providing the initial funding for vocational agriculture, home economics, and trade and industrial arts education. The resulting legislation bears their names, as does what would become known as vocational education for nearly a century in the United States. This legislation created vocational agriculture classes across America, the catalyst for Future Farmers of America and New Farmers of America.
During the week of Feb. 19-26, 2017, FFA members from around the country will celebrate two big events: National FFA Week and the 100th anniversary of the Smith-Hughes Act. The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 was passed by the United States Congress Feb. 23 of that year. FFA members learn about this historic event and the opportunities it has provided, usually in their first agriculture class.
As the National FFA Organization spans our country and has become as diversified as the agriculturalists who live in it, one must stop and reflect on how we got here. Legislation comes and goes, and is amended, ratified and passed, but what does it say about a piece of legislation and its very importance that those who have worn the National Blue and Corn Gold will stop 100 years later to remember it?
It says a lot, actually. Although some of the verbiage and quite a few of the names have changed, the story is the same. We refer to vocational courses now as Career and Technical Education courses, but, if you stay around an Agriscience Department long enough, you just may hear it referred to as the VoAg Department. This change is also on the FFA Jacket. No longer does it read Vocational Education around that cross section of the ear of corn but Agricultural Education. Also, gone are those white FFA sweetheart jackets, but, of course, FFA has reached a pretty close to even number of young men and women in membership as of late.
Still, the story is much richer. FFA is usually remembered by every stately gentleman around a small town’s square sharing a story about his youth – maybe as a steer or hog project, or maybe he was the state winning corn grower, or maybe his sweetheart was an FFA sweetheart.
Let your imagination run wild to a picturesque, Mayberry-like time and just look how far we have come. Now we have satellite-remote tractors with GPS sync and Bluetooth providing streams of data, and let’s not forget drones used for crop management and yield data.
Left to right, Representative Dudley Hughes, Georgia (Credit: www.wikipedia.org); Senator Hoke Smith, Georgia (Credit: www.georgiaencyclopedia.org) Smith and Hughes cofounded the Smith-Hughes Vocational Education Act of 1917, making Agriculture Education possible.
Still, FFA and Agricultural Education are two sides of the same heart. One could not and would not be sustained without the other. What follows is a little walk down memory lane to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Smith-Hughes Act and the National FFA Organization that it helped create.
Virginia, in the mid-1920s, was the first state to form a future farmers club for boys in agricultural education classes; this later became known as the Future Farmers of Virginia. Henry Groseclose, who was an agriculture teacher from Blacksburg, Virginia, is commonly referred to as the "Father of FFA." In just a few short years, Future Farmers’ clubs were organized across the country. A similar group for African-American students was also established called the New Farmers’ clubs.
In 1926, the American Royal Livestock Show in Kansas City, Missouri, invited vocational agriculture students to participate in livestock judging events. Two years later, also at the American Royal, students from across the United States met to establish the Future Farmers of America that was to provide farm boys leadership training.
November 1928, 33 delegates from 18 states met at the Hotel Baltimore. Leslie Applegate of New Jersey was elected as the first national FFA president, and the first national advisor, Dr. C.H. Lane, was accepted. National dues were set at 10 cents per member.
Today, 65,000 FFA members descend on the city of Indianapolis, Indiana, to attend the second largest convention in the United States, where delegates from across the country make decisions for the greater good of the membership and six new national FFA officers are installed. Dues, by the way, are currently $7 annually.
In 1928, the first sectional gathering of the New Farmers of America paved the way for its founding in 1935. Dr. H.O. Sargent, a federal agricultural education official, conceived the idea of a national New Farmers of America Organization. G.W. Owens and J.R. Thomas, who taught at Virginia State College, co-authored the NFA constitution.
In 1965, FFA and NFA merged.
In 1929, Alabama was the 36th state to receive its charter. The original charter certificate, signed by Henry Groseclose and written by hand, hangs in the office of the Career/Technical Education Field Office in Auburn. Earl Solomon of Uriah (Monroe County) was the first state president. FFA chapters across Alabama were assigned charter numbers according to schools or names of the chapters and Abbeville High School (Henry County) bears the distinction of having the charter number of AL0001. After the initial charter numbers were distributed, charter numbers were assigned as chapters joined the state association or as numbers became open and available.
At the third national convention in 1930, the FFA creed was adopted. It is one of the longest-standing parts of the organization. Erwin Milton (E.M.) Tiffany, Wisconsin, penned the creed, and, though it has had a few changes (revised in 1965 and 1990), the basic values and beliefs of the creed are still intact and remain a solid foundation for the FFA’s principles.
The National FFA Organization began as the Future Farmers of America, and this name was used for 60 years. The current name maintains the organization’s roots, while reflecting the science, business and technology of agriculture.
FFA is one of only two student organizations to have a federal charter, the other being the Boy Scouts of America Organization. Public Law 740 passed the U.S. Congress in 1950, thus making FFA an intracurricular part of the agriscience education program. FFA activities are so important to the purpose of the curriculum that they should be considered a part of the agriscience curriculum and are not to be considered as extracurricular.
One of FFA’s most widely recognized symbols is the blue corduroy jacket. Dr. Gus Lintner, advisor of the Fredericktown (Ohio) FFA Chapter, was looking for a uniform for the Fredericktown Band that was to appear at the 1933 National Convention. His design of the blue corduroy jacket captured the attention of the official delegates and they voted to adopt it as FFA’s official dress.
Alabama has had 15 national officers. Two served as national secretary and the others as Southern Region Vice President. The Falkville Chapter (Morgan County) had back-to-back national officers in 1985-86 with Robert Weaver and 1986-87 with Jayme Feary.
The state convention has been held in three cities: Auburn, Birmingham and Montgomery. From 1934 to1946, the convention was in Auburn. Birmingham hosted the convention in 1947. The convention then returned to Auburn in 1948 and remained till 1968. (There was not a state convention in 1966.) The convention moved to Montgomery’s Garrett Coliseum in 1969 and remained there until 1976. In 1977-2003, the convention was held at the Montgomery Civic Center. Auburn became the host city again in 2004, moving back to Montgomery and the Montgomery Renaissance and Montgomery Performing Arts Centre in 2010 and has remained there.
FFA districts in Alabama date back to 1934, when several chapters organized themselves into three districts, simply called districts one, two and three. By 1936, Alabama had 22 districts that included 114 of the state’s 138 chapters. Most of these districts were named for a nearby city, although a few were named for a county or geographic location. Some of these districts were Andalusia, DeKalb County, Gadsden, East Alabama, Montgomery and Muscle Shoals.
The number and size of districts has varied a great deal over the years, as districts often were reorganized every few years based upon membership trends and the number of state staff members. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Alabama was divided into five districts; in the mid-1960s, the state was organized into four districts. Several years later, Alabama had six districts with a seventh district added in the 1970s. In 1991, Alabama was divided into four districts, and, in 2000, the state was divided into three districts: North, Central and South. Today, the district organization continues to be a vital component of Alabama FFA, as it provides opportunities for leadership training and friendly competition among chapters.
Alabama FFA has had 11 state advisors. C.W. Reed served the longest at 18 years. R.E. Cammack, who served from 1930-1946, became the first State Vocational Director, now known as Deputy Superintendent of Career and Technical Education/Workforce Development and Counseling. Jacob Davis, the current state advisor, has served in that capacity since 2012. Philip Paramore currently serves as the executive secretary. There have been 11 State FFA Executive Secretaries since 1946. Byron Rawls, Alabama’s executive secretary from 1960-1964, eventually became the National FFA Advisor and served from 1979 to 1983.
Alabama, just like the national FFA, has had a terrific history. From its humble beginnings in the late 1920s to the technological 21st century, FFA has played a key role in developing the potential for premier leadership, personal growth and career success. Production agriculture practices are not the only content taught in Agriscience these days. As we learn to navigate and incorporate into the technological future, FFA still inspires youth to success through its many activities, leadership development opportunities and, of course, contests. Let’s not forget those contests. Ah, the old banners, National Blue with Corn Gold lettering, won by FFA members and hanging in Agriscience departments across the state. It’s like a Klondike bar … what would an ag teacher do for a state winning banner?
Without the support of our local schools, communities, and our representation in our state capitol and in Washington, vocational education would not be possible. So as February 2017 nears ever closer and the celebration of National FFA Week and the 100th anniversary of the Smith-Hughes Act are underway, take the time to recall your time in FFA, dig out your old jacket (see if it fits, mine doesn’t), speak to a local Agriscience class, join a local FFA Alumni Affiliate, return to the old home place, farm and school, and take yourself and those students you meet down memory lane.
I want to offer a special thank you to Jacob Davis and Philip Paramore for contributing portions of this article.
Andy Chamness is the Central District FFA Advisor.