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The Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the Arts

Flyer for the 1980 Mississippi Folk Arts Festival

The Amistad Research Center received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to survey the records of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives-Land Assistance Fund (FSC-LAF), an organization committed to assisting African-American farmers in the southeastern United States through training programs and a network of co-ops.

Through this survey we learned about the many different programs and projects created and administered by FSC from the 1960s to the 1990s. While the majority of FSC-LAF’s work was focused directly on African-American farmers, it was also concerned with the overall development of the rural southeast and the challenges faced by African-Americans. FSC administered several non-agricultural projects and programs focused on business, education, providing legal services and providing healthcare to underserved areas. As a result, there are many points of access in this collection. It is interesting for many reasons beyond agriculture.

It comes as no surprise that FSC was interested in cultural development as well. For this post, I wanted to focus on two creative arts endeavors by FSC. The first is the Rural Arts Program, which I learned about through a proposal by Billie Jean Young. The program operated around Eutaw, Alabama, located in the west central part of the state in what is known as the Black Belt. The Rural Arts Program offered instruction and training in dance, drama, conga rhythms and all aspects of theater to enhance the quality of life for young children. It provided a forum for the development, growth, presentation and display of creative abilities. Students who attended these classes were taught with performance in mind. In addition to its daily classes, Rural Arts Program aspired to feature artists in residencies, according to the proposal. Young directed performances at local high schools as part of the Branch Heights Company and Theater.

The records also include materials from the Mississippi Folk Arts Festival, which was co-sponsored by FSC and Miles College in conjunction with the Minority People’s Council. It was supported by a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. This festival was a forum to help document and preserve the traditions and cultural heritage of those affected by the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway (TTW). The TTW is a significant public works project which connects the Tombigbee River to the Tennessee River to aid commercial navigation. The Army Corp of Engineers predicted economic, ecological and cultural change in the area. The Mississippi Folk Arts Festival showcased local artists and craftspeople and also served to bring the community together to celebrate their traditions and heritage in the face of change and possible upheaval.

According to a report found within the records, the Mississippi Folk Arts Festival in 1980 provided a stage for local musicians who sang and played the harmonica and the guitar and showed off other skills, such as jug blowing, rubboard beating, beating spoons and knocking the bones (I had to look that one up. ‘Bones’ are a musical instrument consisting of a pair of, well, animal bones). Several gospel choirs large and small performed old hymns. In addition to the music, the Festival had quilts on display, basket weaving, cooking, sculptures and hair braiding. The event was a huge success which drew more than 500 people on the festival’s second day.

Surveying these records provided an interesting window into the different aspects of rural life for African-Americans throughout the southeast, including the formation of cooperatives and the various agricultural, economic and cultural programs created by FSC. My examination of the art programs and initiatives highlights another dimension of the work that the Federation of Southern Cooperatives accomplished.

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