In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Farmers’ Improvement Society (FIS) worked to help poor farmers escape the cycle of debt caused by the share cropping and credit system which developed in the wake of the Civil War.
Although the abolition of slavery represented a great step forward after the Civil War, life for many African Americans did not immediately improve. After emancipation, a large portion of freedmen and freedwomen remained at the plantations they had lived on for years, taking on new roles as tenant farmers or sharecroppers. These forms of work became, in many ways, a new form of slavery.
Both sharecropping and tenant farming involved a landowner renting a portion of their land to a farmer. Each year, the landowner claimed a portion of the farmer’s crop as rent. The farmer had to purchase tools, seeds, and other provisions, either from the landlord at the cost of a high share of the crop, or from a merchant on credit. The harvested crop would then be given to the landlord for rent and to the merchant to settle any outstanding debt. Problems often arose when the farmer had a bad harvest. The landlord charged the same portion each year, regardless of the amount brought in during the harvest. This often left farmers without enough crop to pay merchants back. This system created a cycle of debt and made it nearly impossible for people to leave sharecropping or tenant farming because they were never able to make enough money to go elsewhere.
Robert Lloyd Smith, who married Ruby Cobb and was a part of the great Waco Smith-Cobb family, was living in Oakland, Texas, when he decided to combat the exploitation of black farmers through this unjust agricultural system. Smith witnessed first-hand the suffering of African Americans trapped in institutionalized poverty in Oakland, and in 1889, he created the Village Improvement Society (VIS) as a solution. The VIS focused upon helping black people improve the aesthetics of the areas of town in which they lived. In 1891, Smith restructured the VIS into the Farmers’ Improvement Society in order to focus on bettering farmers’ lives and ending the cycle of poverty.
FIS set out to put a stop to sharecropping and tenant farming by encouraging farm ownership and the use of cash purchases instead of credit buying. The organization also provided health benefits to members, held agricultural fairs to demonstrate techniques, and even opened an agricultural college in Wolfe City, Texas, in 1906. The society became very popular among African American farmers, and by 1909, had grown to about 21,000 members across Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas. In 1912, the society’s members owned 75,000 acres of land valued at over $1 million.
In 1908, FIS opened the Farmer’s Improvement Bank in Waco in order to solve the issue of farmers needing tools and provisions before being paid once a year at harvest. The Farmers’ Improvement Bank—located at 109 Bridge Street—provided farmers with low-interest alternatives to outside banks’ steep rates. Smith encouraged society members to hold their savings at the bank, and the local FIS offices were located above it. The bank continued to operate until the Great Depression lowered cotton prices drastically, resulting in most depositors withdrawing their money. The bank ultimately failed in September of 1930.
Despite the popularity of the organization among black farmers, the Great Depression took a heavy toll upon FIS, and it weakened as more farmers left for major cities to find jobs. Throughout the 1930s, the society lost much of its membership and had to take out loans to pay benefits owed to remaining members. R. L. Smith and his wife Ruby Cobb worked to keep the association afloat, but Smith’s death in 1942 spelled the end of the society. After nearly half a century of working to elevate the status of African Americans in Texas, the Farmers’ Improvement Society ceased operations.