Like many city kids growing up in Richmond, Va., Carolyn Brooks didn’t know much about agriculture and had never heard of 4-H. That changed quickly, however, as she was the first in her family to graduate from college—earning a B.S. and then a M.S. in biology from one of the foremost agricultural schools in the country, Tuskegee University, where she said, many people “helped me, guided me, and cared about my success.”
Brooks said that before moving to Tuskegee, Ala., she “knew nothing about the South. I had never been in that kind of environment – in a predominantly black community.”
Today, Brooks has a Ph.D. in microbiology and is a leader in the 1890 Land-Grant University (LGU) System as the Executive Director of the Association of 1890 Research Directors. Prior to this position, Brooks served as the dean of the School of Agricultural and Natural Sciences and the 1890 Research Director at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore (UMES).
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) provides major funding and program leadership to the LGU system—including historically black, tribal, and Hispanic-serving institutions—which are NIFA’s chief partners in research, education, and extension activities.
Brooks was inspired to study microbiology after listening to a speaker at a high school summer program. As freshman at Tuskegee, she learned about the life of George Washington Carver. Carver, a former slave and first head of the Tuskegee Agriculture Department, promoted alternative crops to cotton, such as peanuts and sweet potatoes. “Every freshman knew about agriculture because we all know about Carver and what he did for the South,” she said.
In her sophomore year at Tuskegee, Brooks married an agricultural education major who later became a cooperative extensive agent. Brooks was impressed that “the university did so much for the community.” Not only that, but “the rural communities my husband served took us in as their own. It was then that I came to understand how land-grant universities are so important.”
To date, Brooks has either studied or taught at four land-grant universities, three of which are 1890 institutions. In celebration of 125th anniversary of the Second Morrill Act, Brooks reflected on the 1890 Land-Grant University System and what it has done for her and our nation. “My 1890 university colleagues are a close community of dear friends who believe—as I do—in giving back and finding ways to not just sustain, but to enhance the universities’ mission of advancing all” she said.
After the liberation of about four million slaves in 1865, Senator Justin Morrill—author of 1862 Morrill Act that created land-grant universities—furthered the vision for democracy in higher education by introducing the Second Morrill Act of 1890. Of the hardworking, but primarily illiterate blacks, Morrill said, “They are members of the American family, and their advancement concerns us all.” African-Americans were to be included in the U.S. land-grant university higher education system without discrimination. However, the 17 southern and border states would not consent. As a result, the new law allowed for those states to establish a second land-grant institution—then known as the Negro land-grant institutions and today as the 1890 land-grant universities and Tuskegee University.
Today there are a total of 19 1890 land-grant universities, which are ladders to opportunity, especially for students with limited access to education. Each institution offers classes, research, and extension programs in the food, agricultural, and related sciences.
NIFA’s mission: Invest in and advance agricultural research, education, and extension to solve societal challenges. NIFA’s vision: Catalyze transformative discoveries, education, and engagement to address agricultural challenges. For more information, visit http://nifa.usda.gov/.