Diversity. Inclusion. Culture. Racial Injustice — all were important topics of 2020. While this past year brought a social awareness that was decades overdue, people are still looking for change — they want to see action. While many of us in the agriculture industry might be wondering what we can do, the next generation of agriculture is doing their part to initiate change. One Tennessee FFA chapter took action by simply asking a question.
One day in class the Scotts Hill FFA Advisor Christopher Cherry was teaching the history of FFA. One student, Malachi Johnson, simply asked the question, “Why isn’t there more information about the NFA history?”
For those who haven’t had an FFA history lesson in a while, the NFA stands for the New Farmers of America. The NFA was an organization of young African-American students who were interested in agriculture. The organization started in 1935 and could be found in 17 southern states. However, in 1965 they merged with the National FFA Organization (or at that time known as the Future Farmers of America). While the merger is described as a way to bring two different backgrounds together, it was still a major undertaking filled with tension from both sides.
Although the FFA has done a good job talking about diversity and inclusion after the merger, there is still a missing piece — the history of NFA in the FFA manual. There is 30 years of history that has been dropped from it.
When Johnson initially asked the question, his advisor was left speechless. Cherry said, “You hear about white privilege. That was one of the few times as a teacher that I felt it. Because when he asked that question, I was completely unprepared, and I did not have an answer.”
However, Cherry did not let the conversation die there. Since then, the students have taken on the journey to learn more about the NFA, including their local chapter.
“I don’t want them to go out of their way just to make the NFA history its own special little area. Just normalize it like they did the FFA. I think the NFA is just as important as the FFA is. I think everybody deserves to know the history behind it, ”Johnson said. “It is crazy to think that one little small comment can spark something huge.”
The journey, the jacket
On the journey to uncover the history of the NFA, the Scotts Hill FFA Chapter was also able to achieve a remarkable feat. Their chapter has a wall of framed jackets that includes every jacket that could have been worn by a Scotts Hill FFA member, including an FFA Sweetheart Jacket and Sardis FFA Chapter jacket (previous chapter that was merged with Scotts Hill FFA) — and finally they were able to add an NFA jacket to the wall.
The jacket traveled on quite the journey to get to the Scotts Hill FFA Chapter. First, the students looked hard to find a jacket from their local NFA chapter. They would soon find out that jackets are hard to come by since not many young NFA members were able to afford one. Even looking for a Tennessee NFA jacket proved difficult. So when they finally tracked down an NFA jacket, they jumped at the opportunity. The jacket was originally found in a thrift store in Texas, but crossed state lines when it was purchased by a former Tennessee ag teacher.
Scotts Hill is not the only location with FFA jackets on display. For example, the Smithsonian famously has FFA jackets on display. However, not even the Smithsonian could track down an NFA jacket. They are so rare that Cherry said that he has only seen three NFA jackets in real life — the jacket they found, the one that was on display at the National FFA Convention (which was only on loan), and another from a school that he student taught at.
The students have even more planned to honor their local NFA chapter. They have set up a Human Resources Committee to interview four original members from the Montgomery NFA Chapter. This will allow their history to finally be recorded as they saw it. The interviews will be put together for a documentary that will be shown at the Scotts Hill FFA Banquet. These gentlemen will finally be able to tell their side of the story — just because someone asked one simple question — 65 years later.
Ethan Hall FFA Chapter president said, “It is kind of sad to say, but when we looked at this merger, it was more of a take over than a merger. A lot of the history got lost. A lot of that was not intentional, but when the merger took place knowledge got lost, the heritage got lost and there are not a lot of people who can speak on that knowledge and tell you exactly what happened. I just think that any knowledge we can get on it and share with people who are interested, is good knowledge.”