By: Surendra Surujdeo-Maharaj | Ph. D.
As part of a joint project between Tuskegee University and Booker T. Washington (BTW) High School, Houston, Agriculture students at Booker T. Washington High School (Houston Independent School District) journeyed to Alabama – home of Tuskegee University during the week of 14-18 November, to engage in discussions on how Agriculture can be a tool to address Food Insecurity and Climate Change.
The project allowed BTW Houston students to connect with three BTW High Schools in the area, present ongoing work by BTW, Houston to address food insecurity and climate change and understand the role that Dr. Booker T. Washington and Civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. played in the development of Agriculture and industry in the deep south.
Upon arrival to BTW, Atlanta, Houston students were warmly welcomed by their peers and given a grand tour of their campus. Students discovered to their surprise that BTW Atl., like BTW, Houston was in a food desert and the focus of their STEM program was to engage students in their local community in ways that connect learning to the real world. They did this by having a food production and culinary program to address food insecurity in the area.
Campus Principals William Wade (BTW, Atlanta) and Dr. Carlos Phillips II (BTW, Houston) of both schools met briefly, exchanged BTW Merch, and discussed continued collaboration between both schools.
On their second day, students arrived at Henderson Hall where the College of Agriculture, Environment and Nutrition Sciences (CAENS) is located. Here, they had another opportunity to connect with BTW, Tuskegee students and Science Chair Ms. Jatoria Floyd during a meet and greet as well as interact with Dr. Quesha Starks, Principal of BTW, Montgomery. They were then led to various labs housed in the building where work was being carried out to address food insecurity and nutrition. During the exchange, students shared what they loved about their individual campuses and things they wanted to see improved.
As part of their research into how the 19th century economy in the US was built on Agriculture, students visited the Legacy Museum in Montgomery. BTW Houston upperclassman Ja’Keerah Brooks chronicled ‘As I walked through the legacy museum I was filled with much sadness. It hurt to know that my people had to go through such things and were treated horribly. It also hurt to accept the fact that we still have problems to this day regarding racism. Some of the parts from the museum that really affected me though were the sections about the prisons.’
Maria Velasquez, BTW Houston Junior impressions of the exhibits at the museum ‘were sadness and a bit of anger. I got really emotional hearing one of the female caged slave’s singings in her cell and also hearing the two little boys calling for their mom. I imagined myself seeing these boys in their cells and reflecting on my memories when I was little with mom and dad. I felt a bit uneasy going into the exhibit with the statue heads on the projected water because imagining their bodies being thrown out into the water and having to die alone by the sea was messed up. The music added to that uneasiness.’
In the afternoon of the third day, BTW, Houston students presented innovations in agriculture that were ongoing at their campus to address food security and climate change to Tuskegee Undergrad students and staff at Henderson Hall Auditorium. Tuskegee undergrads were very impressed with the work being done at the high school level and wished they could have learned more about sustainable agriculture while they were in high school. Campus principal Dr. Carlos Phillips II also made an engaging presentation to the audience of the Vision Statue and Community Plaza project to honor Dr. Booker T. Washington in Houston.
In examining why Black farmers were left landless during the reconstruction period, students visited Selma to find answers. They visited the Selma Museum, Brown Chapel, walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge and discussed among themselves about what it must have been like for farmers during that period and the human price paid to
Eleventh grade student Ashley Risley, BTW Houston reflected ‘I mentally picture people walking around the streets and going to church and the stores there. But l also felt sad and angry of how much violence the civil right movement brought. People of color protested and created a movement to be able to vote and have equality, but whites and police enforcement brutality beat on the people of color.’
On the last day of their Agriculture immersion experience, Ph.D. candidate Gail Yielding invited students to visit Auburn University to learn about the oldest continuous soil fertility experiment (est. 1911) in Southeastern US – The Cullars Rotation, modern sustainable Agriculture, Vertical and indoor Farms. Students were able to compare the early history of Agriculture in the US with the future of farms in a single location. They were reassured that what they were learning in their classroom is driven by innovative changes in the agriculture industry and that they are more confident to address food insecurity and climate change in their neighborhood.
Since the start of the 2022 academic year, students at BTW Houston have been reading in their Scientific Research and Design class about the lives of two outstanding educators and agriculturalists who believed that students should be empowered with skills that would allow them to grow their own food sustainably to improve the quality of life. In their final moments, students paid homage to these men who have inspired their school’s namesake and sustainable agriculture philosophy by visiting the house where Booker Taliaferro Washington lived and carried out the most important work of his life. Students reflected ‘It felt like there was a lot of history and walking into the house connected us to it… I felt honored because after the trip we knew so much more about Booker T. and the meaning behind the statue.