Penn State University
Professor/Oral History Librarian
Oklahoma State University
Annie Peters Hunter was the first federally appointed black home demonstration agent in the country. The purpose of this historical study was to learn more about her work, community, and family. She began her home demonstration career January 23, 1912 in Boley, Oklahoma, two years before the passage of the Smith-Lever Act established federal funding for Cooperative Extension programs. Annie Peters Hunter paved the way for other home demonstration educators. By all accounts she was physically and mentally strong. She lost her first husband, was a single parent, a caregiver, and later held two jobs and became part of a blended family – all while helping other families survive and thrive. There is evidence that at least one of her innovations lasted through several decades. The nearest black home demonstration agent was 50 miles away. Though only a few sources and artifacts still remain from that time, the authors provide insight into her life and work.
Cooperative Extension, Extension agent, USDA, home demonstration, Oklahoma, African American
Before the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 formally established federal funding, Extension programs in the South were largely agricultural. Much had been written about the farming methods developed by Seaman Knapp, George Washington Carver, and Booker T. Washington.
Thomas Campbell, the first black agricultural agent in the country, was involved in demonstration work as early as 1906. He taught both black and white farmers through the moveable schools (Campbell 1916-1946). But what about the need for women’s programs in African American communities at that time?
A single line in a 1984 Oklahoma 4-H Foundation cookbook indicated that “Annie Peters Hunter of Boley, Oklahoma, was the first negro home demonstration agent in the United States.”
This sentence began the search to discover more about this woman and her work (Table 1). Three additional sources confirmed that she was appointed on January 23, 1912, the first federally appointed black home demonstration agent in the United States (Stewart 1961; Martin 1926; Evans 1923). (Home demonstration agent was the title given to the earliest Extension educators hired to provide family and consumer sciences programs.)
This historical study sought to find out more about Annie Peters Hunter, her Extension work, community, and family.
A researcher from the southern United States and one from the Northeast collaborated on this project, seeking to learn more about Annie Peters Hunter than just her name, location, and date of her appointment: Boley, Oklahoma, and 1912.
In the historical research tradition (Ramsey 2010; Kirsch and Rohan 2008; Presnell 2007; Stebbins 2006) documentation included primary and secondary sources of information, including Extension reports and bulletins, letters, photographs, and newspaper articles. Inquiries were made of local officials and historians and to the libraries of Tuskegee Institute, Oklahoma State University, and Florida A&M University. (Florida A&M has a special collection dedicated to Extension work of African Americans.) Census records and birth and marriage certificates provided guideposts in order to validate other sources of information.
The search for documentation began in May 2010, and each researcher independently followed leads and gathered information. Collaboration and comparison of the findings were undertaken by the authors before writing this paper.
Valid sources of information came slowly. The investigators were not able to interview family members as several generations had passed but did interview Henrietta Hicks (2010) who remembered the latter part of Mrs. Hunter’s life. Eventually, a photograph was located of Annie (Hicks 2010). One of the last pieces of information found was her maiden name: Keeling. Peters was the last name of her first husband. Hunter was the last name of her second (and last) husband.
Although numerous potential sources of information were reviewed, few contained even the remotest mention of Mrs. Annie Peters Hunter. The study is limited to the few sources that still exist, as very little information was kept or even documented with regard to the lives of African American Extension workers during the time of her employment.
Note about word choice
In the report of the findings, the term “black” is used by the authors in lieu of earlier designations of African American people. The quotes and the references were left as found for accuracy and ease in locating sources. To aid the reader, the findings are presented as follows: Annie, before Extension employment; Annie, during Extension employment; and Annie, life after Extension employment.
Annie, before Extension employment
According to information supplied by her son for Annie’s death certificate, she was born February 18, 1880, in Octavia, Alabama. Other sources, however, differ from this date by one or two years. Her death certificate indicates that her father’s name was Ned Keeling and her mother’s first name was Molly. Ned Keeling was from Alabama, and Molly, from Virginia (Delano 2010). Annie Keeling’s race was designated “mulatto” in the census records, though it is not known whether she was part American Indian, Hispanic, or white. There is some evidence that her father died when she was five years old from heart disease (Etowah County News 1885). She also died of heart disease, at the age of 78.
Annie was educated, but it is not certain where. One source states that she attended Alabama A&M College and Talladega College, which is located south of Birmingham, Alabama (Stuckey 2010). There is conjecture that Annie and William Henry Peters were married in Alabama in 1906, prior to moving to Boley, Oklahoma.
Though several sources disagree, the majority declare that Boley was founded in 1903 or 1904, and incorporated in 1905 as Boley, Creek Nation, Indian Territory, before Oklahoma became a state in November 1907. The town was established on land inherited by Abigail Burnett McCormick who invited blacks to come from “far and wide” to establish a home. It was named for the white road master (in charge of the rail track), John Boley, who convinced the Fort Smith and Western Railroad that blacks could govern themselves.
Educated blacks came along with those seeking a better life away from the Jim Crow segregation laws of the South. In the early twentieth century, Boley was the largest predominantly black town in the United States. Booker T. Washington once declared it “the most enterprising and in many ways the most interesting of the negro towns in the U.S.” (Washington 1906-1908). In 1912, with a population of 4,000, the town had established five grocery stores, five hotels, seven restaurants, four cotton gins, three drugstores, a jewelry store, four department stores, two insurance companies, photographer studios, and an ice plant. It had the first black-owned bank and electric company in the state (Taylor 2010).
Annie and William H. Peters were known as Boley pioneers. William taught at the Indian Mission School (Boley Progress 1911), and census records indicate that he considered himself a professor. Because Oklahoma’s constitution was amended in 1910, allowing only blacks and others who could pass a harsh literacy test to vote (Baird and Goble 2008), Mr. Peters’ reading education curriculum convinced the Boley election board to allow more citizens this privilege (Boley Progress 1911). There is evidence that Mr. and Mrs. Peters were the first teachers at the school (CME Junior College 1927, 7)
William S. Peters, a hero of the civil rights movement (Peters 2004), may have been related to Annie and her husband. The time he worked as a lawyer in Boley coincides with the time Annie and William H. were residents there. William S. was shot several times and later assassinated in Boley in 1936 because of his activism.
Annie, during Extension employment
J. R. (James Russell) Council, a Tuskegee graduate, began operating as a “farm demonstration agent” on his own initiative when he arrived in Boley in 1908 (Crosby 1977). Boley was included within a 36-mile township with 5,000 black farmers (Council 1910).
On the strength of his independent success, Council was appointed Oklahoma’s first black farm demonstration agent of the federal Farmers Cooperative Demonstration Program in December 1909. Council received fifty dollars a month to expand the work he had initiated the previous year (State Director Annual Report 1911). Newspapers touted that the “efficiency (of farms) could be raised 2,000 percent, if farmers responded to (Extension) efforts on their behalf” (The Oklahoman 1914).
Mrs. Peters was hired as part of this effort to make black farm families more prosperous. This meant helping them raise gardens and preserve enough food to get them to the next growing season. Families had to be self-sufficient to survive.
Educational programs were also needed for both the farmer and his wife as they were considered business partners. To have a successful farm operation, both must work together. Unfortunately, most homes at that time did not have electricity, running water, refrigeration, or a reliable source of heat to allow a farm wife more time for outside work and leisure. It was difficult enough just to get the housework done.
When it became apparent that black women could get access to black homes better than anyone else, black home demonstration agents in Boley and other parts of the state were appointed (Martin 1926). Annie started demonstration work January 23, 1912, at the age of 31, and there is evidence that the Chamber of Commerce cooperated in her employment (Evans 1925). She worked in both Seminole and Okfuskee counties (The Oklahoman 1918) from offices in Boley, Guthrie, Kingfisher, Langston, Muskogee, and Oklahoma City.
At the time she was hired, her pay was forty dollars for a six-week period. The dollar amount of local funds required for placing a black agent was less than that required for a white agent (Bentley 1914). Early home demonstration agents cost the local community even less than farm agents (State Director Report 1911).
The role of the home demonstration agent in Mrs. Peters’ time was to teach women and young girls how to preserve foods, conserve resources, keep foods clean and safe to eat, and create ways to earn a little income. Raising chickens, for example, provided protein in the family diet, and any extra eggs could be sold.
As in many other parts of the country, the New York Education Board, an association of wealthy men (including John D. Rockefeller), gave funds “to aid worthy education enterprises who were in need of such help” (Bentley 1914, 15). One thousand dollars was donated to start the girls’ canning club work in Oklahoma in 1912. In 1913, the board doubled its appropriation. The Fort Smith and Western Railroad was also an early contributor of Extension programs for women. They were especially interested in helping fund the work in towns such as Boley where the train stopped. More people able to survive in these areas potentially meant more customers for the railroad.
Little is known about the specifics of Annie’s Extension activities except that her instructions for canning demonstrations were said to have remained in use until the 1940s. She devised a large set-up for hot water canning (likely open kettle) consisting of two zinc tubs and a zinc foundation with an elbow and two joints of stovepipe. Another agent had rigged a crude furnace and a stove in a grove of trees. Although the implements were fairly unsophisticated, the procedure was moderately efficient. On a community basis, 500 quarts could be processed every day. This canning method was replicated in churches and schools and spread to the homes of many black families as well (Brooks 2008).
Mrs. Peters initially worked with girls through canning clubs. By 1914, more than 400 girls had entered homemaking clubs (Wilson, Hedger and Chandler 1914). During the 1918-1919 year, there were 872 black girls’ clubs and 448 women enrolled as volunteer demonstrators (Wilson 1920).
Emma Chandler, state home demonstration leader, reported that there were three women agents working in the “black belt”: one in Logan County, one in Muskogee, and one (Annie Peters) in Seminole, Okfuskee, and Okmulgee counties (The Oklahoman 1918). These three women traveled 6,346 miles by rail; 1,514 by auto; and 3,327 by team (Wilson 1919, 34). This does not count the many miles on foot, carrying demonstration tools and materials. The nearest black home demonstration agent to Annie was located 50 miles away.
The report of the Extension Division (Wilson 1920) indicated that Mrs. Annie Peters continued her work in Okfuskee and Seminole counties with an office in Boley. Where the work with the people had been carried on the longest, the results were more evident. In one community that year, twenty black families bought homes. “The black home demonstration agents are untiring in their efforts to raise their people to a better and more sensible manner of living and their exhibits at the state fair show hard, thorough work” (Wilson 1920, 32).
“From early spring enrolling time until the last report was in, these women agents were kept busy meeting the demands of their people for help. The club enrollment was large and school children furnished a good part of the program (audience). Their gardens and field crops have given them good returns and the agents reported quantities of canned goods stored for future use and many canning demonstrations given” (Wilson 1921, 36).
Although food conservation was the chief line of work of the home demonstration agents, the rural women were interested in shortcuts and better ways of doing things that would improve their lives. The agents found time to teach them to make or install such labor-saving devices as fireless cookers, iceless refrigerators, fly screens, ironing boards, ten-wheeled serving trays, shower baths, kitchen cabinets, and home water systems during those years. They carried on an extensive wheat-saving campaign throughout World War I. During this time, the entire state gave 667 demonstrations on how to make corn, peanut, sweet potato, grain sorghum, and rice breads (The Oklahoman 1918).
Okfuskee and Seminole counties also had white Extension workers, but they did not live and work in the same towns. Mrs. Peters’ white counterpart worked from Okemah, the county seat of Okfuskee County. Likewise the two counties held separate fairs, one for blacks and one for whites (Wilson 1920, 33). Special prizes were created for the youth, and it was reported that these prizes were the same for black, Indian, and white children (The Oklahoman 1914). In Boley, 54 dozen eggs were exhibited in 1920, and this exhibit was judged by the poultry specialist from Oklahoma A&M College as the best show in the state. Wilson (1921) reported that the 260 girls enrolled as members raised 1,600 chickens.
Though segregation was not as much of an issue in Boley as in other parts of the state and Mrs. Peters managed her own Extension programs, she did have to attend joint meetings with others.
The most challenging of these might have been the three-day agents’ meeting held in Guthrie, Oklahoma, in May 1913. The federal representative from Washington, I.W. Hill, was cited as “rendering valuable service smoothing over the ‘colorline’ difficulty among the (16 other) ladies on account of the attendance at the meeting of Annie Peters, the colored woman agent from Boley” (Bentley 1914, 18).
Sometime between 1916 and 1920, Annie’s first husband, William H. Peters, died.
In 1917, she had a son, William Henry Jr. During this time, Maude B. Smith replaced her temporarily (Wilson 1919). As reported in the 1920 census, Annie Peters was a widow, single parent, head of household, supporting a son William (2 years, 8 months) and another woman, Mary E. Peters, likely her mother-in-law (Calhoun 2010). Annie owned her own home, and her occupation was listed as County Demonstration Agent.
On October 15, 1920, Annie married M.T. Hunter (Calhoun and Bryant 2010). M.T. was connected with the telephone exchange, which was located in the same three-story Masonic building as the Extension office. At that time, she worked as both a home demonstration agent and a telephone operator. Mr. Hunter had a daughter, Eunice, who was 11 at the time and later became a member of the girls’ basketball team in Boley. (She was featured in a team photograph). After this marriage, Mrs. Hunter continued to work with Extension at least until 1925 (Evans 1925). In 1926, Mrs. Lula B. McCain became the home demonstration agent in the counties where Annie had served.
Annie, her life after Extension employment
Mrs. Hunter continued to work at the telephone exchange. Hicks (2010) remembered Annie walking to work “very proper and kind of like a penguin” dressed smartly in heels, hat, and gloves. The family did not have a car.
Mr. and Mrs. Hunter were listed together on the 1930 census in Paden Township in Okfuskee County as residing in a home on a corner lot, known by the locals as Hunter Corner (Hicks 2010). At that time, Annie’s age was 50, M.T. was 52, Eunice was 21, and William Peters was 13 years old.
Her stepdaughter, Eunice, married Richard Snelson on September 16, 1944, in Wagoner County (Calhoun 2010) and became a teacher. William’s World War II record indicates that he enlisted in 1942, had four years of college, and was single with no dependents. Hicks (2010) recalled that he continued to live with the Hunters as an adult and was a teacher in Boley.
The end of the 1920s and the early ‘30s was a difficult time for Boley, Oklahoma. During the Depression many people left. The local newspaper went out of business in 1926; the Fort Smith and Western Railroad, in 1939.
Annie Peters Hunter stayed in her community and was named vice president of a Boley club formed to elect Leon Phillips for governor (The Oklahoman 1938). She is reportedly buried in the Boley cemetery, though she died in Oklahoma City on February 23, 1958.
Discussion and implications
Annie Peters Hunter paved the way for other home demonstration educators. By all accounts she was physically and mentally strong. She lost her first husband, was a single parent, a caregiver, and later held two jobs and became part of a blended family — all while helping other families survive and thrive. There is evidence that at least one of her innovations lasted through several decades.
Many black demonstration agents followed in her footsteps. Mattie Holmes of Hampton Institute, Virginia, became the second black home demonstration agent in the United States, appointed by USDA May 24, 1912 (Martin 1926). On June 30, 1915, the end of the first fiscal year after the passage of the Smith-Lever Act, 49 black men and 17 black women were employed as Extension agents in the country.
In 1933, the National (white) Home Demonstration Agents Association was organized. The National Negro Home Demonstration Agents Association started in 1958. The two combined in 1965 as the National Association of Extension Home Economists (Syracuse 2009). Today, this organization is called the National Extension Association of Family and Consumer Sciences or NEAFCS.
After locating the initial reference in the 4-H cookbook, the investigators of this study used government documents, interviews, and library sources to learn more about this early Extension professional. Additional materials may yet come to light about her and other Extension agents whose pioneering programs were replicated across the country.
It is important to learn of these women and men, as they made such a difference in their communities. Together, they influenced the beginning and continuation of a Cooperative Extension Service that has helped both rural and urban families for more than a century after their time.
Table 1: Timeline of Annie Peters Hunter’s Extension work
[Table 1 Summary: Timeline of Annie Peters Hunter’s Extension work and related associations.]
Birth (Annie Keeling): February 18, 1880
Appointment of Annie Peters to Extension work: January 23, 1912
Passage of the Smith-Lever Act: May 8, 1914
Resignation of Annie Peters Hunter: 1925 or 1926
Death: February 23, 1958
National Negro Home Demonstration Agents Association begins: 1958
Home Demonstration Agents Association combines with National Negro Home Demonstration Agents Association: 1965
National Association of Extension Home Economists becomes the National Association of Family and Consumer Sciences: 1995
Baird, W., and D. Goble. 2008. Oklahoma: A History. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
Bentley, W. D. 1914. Early History of the Farmers Cooperative Demonstration Work in Northwest Texas and Oklahoma. USDA Circular 252, General Series 91. Stillwater, OK: Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College.
Boley Progress. 1911. “Election thieves bound over.” Boley, OK: Boley Progress, November 1.
Brooks, C. 2008. Touch the bottom and lift: Black women home extension agents in Oklahoma 1912-1935. Chronicles of Oklahoma 86:88-108.
Calhoun, N. 2010. Personal communication from the Genealogy and Local History section of the Muskogee Public Library (MPL), Muskogee, OK. November 1.
Calhoun, N., and J. Bryant. 2010. Personal communications from the Genealogy and Local History section of the Muskogee Public Library (MPL), Muskogee, OK. September 2.
Campbell, T. M. 1916-1946. Thomas M. Campbell Papers. Tuskegee Institute Archives, microfilm, Roll 170.
CME Junior College. 1927, Catalogue of Oklahoma Normal and Industrial Institute. Boley, OK: CME Junior College.
Council, J. R. 1910. “Agriculture in the black belt of Okfuskee County, Oklahoma.” Boley, OK: Boley Progress, January 12.
Crosby, E. 1977. Building the country home: The black county agent system, 1906-1940. Oxford, OH: Miami University, 93-94.
Delano, Stacy. 2010. Personal communication after conducting search of Ancestry.com with the Stillwater Public Library, Stillwater, OK. May 28.
Etowah County News. 1885. Gadsden, AL: Etowah County News, July 25. http://files.usgwarchives.net/al/calhoun/newspapers/newspape1127gnw.txt
Evans, J. A. 1925. Extension work among negros conducted by negro agents, 1923. USDA Department Circular 355. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
Hicks, H. 2010. Personal communications from an employee of the Boley Historical Society who knew Annie Peters Hunter in her later years. September 10 and June 10.
Kirsch, G., and L. Rohan. 2008. Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Martin, O. B. 1926. A decade of negro extension work, 1914-1924. Miscellaneous Circular 72. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
Oklahoma 4-H Foundation. 1984. Oklahoma 4H’ers Favorite Recipes, 75th Anniversary Edition. Nashville, TN: Favorite Recipes Press.
(The) Oklahoman. 1914. “Government will aid negro farmer: Agent Bentley brings Tuskegee graduates here; $5,000 raised.” Oklahoma City, OK: The Oklahoman, May 10, page 32. (W.D. Bentley is quoted several times in this newspaper article.)
———. 1918. “Million quarts of fruits canned: Conservation campaign got wonderful results in Oklahoma: Reports from 19,335: These tell only part of the story of the saving of food.” Oklahoma City, OK: The Oklahoman, January 20, page 57.
———. 1938. “Boley Phillips club formed.” Oklahoma City, OK: The Oklahoman, February 14, page 2.
Peters, J. C. 2004. William S. Peters: A Forgotten Hero of the Civil Rights Movement. S.I.: Bookman Publishing and Marketing.
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State Director Annual Report, Oklahoma 1911. Report T881.
Stebbins, L. F. 2006. Student Guide to Research in the Digital Age: How to Locate and Evaluate Information Sources. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.
Stewart, R. 1961. “State has first in Boley agent.” Oklahoma City, OK: The Oklahoman July 15, page 4.
Stuckey, M. 2010. Personal communication with faculty member in the Department of History at the University of Oregon. August 31.
Syracuse, C. 2009. NEAFCS: Historical Archives. http://www.neafcs.org/enews.asp?pageID=1651
Taylor, E. 2010. “Little known black history facts about Boley, Oklahoma.” The Tom Joyner Morning Show. http://www.blackamericaweb.com/?q=articles/news/the_black_diaspora_news/22231
Washington, B. T. 1906-1908. Booker T. Washington Papers, Volume 9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boley,_Oklahoma
Wilson, J. A. 1919. Report of the extension division for the year 1917-1918. Extension Circular 91. Stillwater, OK: Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College.
———. 1920. Report of the extension division for the year 1918-1919. Extension Circular 108. Stillwater, OK: Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College.
———. 1921. Report of the extension division for the year 1919-1920. Extension Circular 118. Stillwater, OK: Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College.
Wilson, J. A., H. R. Hedger, and E. A. Chandler. 1914. Report of boys and girls clubs of Oklahoma. Extension Bulletin 1:5, Demonstration Clubs Series 1. Stillwater, OK: Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College.
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