Formed out of the civil rights movement, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives was established in 1967 to create community-based economic development opportunities throughout the rural South for black farmers and rural communities. As the organization grew from a tiny office in Atlanta so did their vision for the future. Member cooperatives voiced a great need for practical vocational training and the FSC decided to build a training center to meet these demands.
The Rural Training and Research Center was established when the Federation’s leadership partnered with the Panola Land Buying Association to acquire 1,200 acres of land in Epes, in Sumter County, Alabama. The Panola Land Buying Association began as a group of tenant farmers who had been evicted from their farmland and had joined together to regain land for their members. An agreement was established between the Federation and the Panola Land Buying Association to work together to purchase the acres of land and, upon their success, a portion of the land would be distributed to the Federation to establish their headquarters. A three-year legal battle to purchase the land was fought by the Federation’s Lewis Black, Albert Turner and Thelma Craig and the previous white landowner, P.M. Norwood, who had lost the land in a foreclosure. They ultimately won in federal court in 1971 and the Federation opened the Training Center in Epes, Alabama, in Sumter County, along the banks of the Tombigbee River.
The Rural Training and Research Center became the symbolic home base for the organization, but for many staff members the term “home” was more literal. The original staff members of the Training Center would include Wendell Paris, George and Alice Paris, John Zippert and Carol Prejean Zippert, and Jim Jones, who relocated to Epes, Alabama with their families in order to build the center. In those formative years, the staff and their families lived in trailers on the property while the housing and training centers were being built. The staff worked alongside contract laborers and contributed a portion of their salaries to help fund the project. These years were filled with hardship, but a close-knit community began to steadily, and resolutely, form.
Once built, the Rural Training and Research Center and Demonstration Farm was used to offer agricultural training courses on beef cattle production, swine and feeder pig production, greenhouse production, row crop and vegetable production, and other projects. Cooperative members from all over the South learned how to plant and rotate their crops, manage livestock, and apply practices to foster personal productivity and economic growth.
The Rural Training and Research Center started as a building with a classroom and demonstration farm, but would eventually grow to include administrative offices; a dormitory to house eighty trainees; cafeteria and classroom space; a materials reproduction center, including presses; a darkroom, videotape and artist studio; as well as recreation and living areas.
Training courses at the Rural Training and Research Center grew to include administrative and managerial curriculum. The Rural Training and Research Center provided technical assistance in areas such as research; management planning and advice; bookkeeping, accounting and auditing; marketing and purchase advice; feasibility studies; housing-land development and retention; legal counsel; and loan packaging.
The Federation leaves a legacy through their work at the Rural Training and Research Center; black farmers learned how to save, protect and use their land in a sustainable way. The Rural Training and Research Center is a place to communicate the ideology and philosophy of the cooperative movement and to promote the tools for economic advancement of rural communities. It became the foundation of the Federation’s operations and remains so to this day.
This project has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.