The motto for the Negro Organization Society, “Better Schools / Better Health / Better Homes / Better Farms,” is printed on the back cover of a program for a conference held by the society in Richmond on November 6 and 7, 1913. Among the speakers for the program were Booker T. Washington, the local businesswoman Maggie Lena Walker, Virginia governor William Hodges Mann, and Richmond mayor George Ainslie.
The Negro Organization Society was a grassroots advocacy association that stressed community self-improvement for African Americans in Virginia during the Jim Crow era. Founded in 1912 at the Hampton Institute by Robert Russa Moton, its motto was “Better Schools, Better Health, Better Homes, Better Farms.” Pursuit of these four goals was considered essential to the protection and welfare of black citizens, especially in rural areas where the great majority of Virginia’s African Americans lived. Over the years, the organization’s actions shifted from building schools to improving education by accrediting more institutions and improving teacher pay. By the 1950s, when the Negro Organization Society had begun to dissolve, the fight for African American civil rights had largely shifted from community and regional organizers to the court system.
Robert Russa Moton was one of the most prominent black educators in the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century. After graduating from the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton Institute and now Hampton University) in Hampton, Virginia, in 1890, he served as the school’s commandant of cadets from 1891 until 1915. He was a close friend of Booker T. Washington, the founding principal of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and the two shared a conservative vision of race relations. They argued, sometimes controversially, that African Americans should not openly defy segregation, but instead cooperate with whites and better themselves through education. After Washington’s death in 1915, Moton became the second principal of Tuskegee, where he made significant contributions to the quality of education, especially in teacher training. He served on various national boards and, during World War I (1914–1918), went to Europe on behalf of U.S. president Woodrow Wilson to investigate the conditions of black soldiers. Moton Field at Tuskegee was named for him, as was Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia, the site of a student walkout in 1951.
Moton, moreover, was passionate about creating means of assistance for blacks in America through education. He helped to create and raise funds for the Industrial Home School for wayward black girls and endeavored to improve opportunities for black home demonstration agents—teachers who provided vocational training in home-making, agriculture, and other non-academic fields—especially for Hampton graduates. In 1912, he founded the community-building Negro Organization Society of Virginia, whose slogan was “Better Schools, Better Health, Better Homes, Better Farms.”
Marion E. Davis, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, led the Negro Organization Society (NOS) from 1930 until 1942. Born enslaved in Mississippi, Davis moved to Virginia in 1910 and took over Portsmouth’s Emmanuel Church. After leading congregations in Richmond and Norfolk, he served as presiding elder over four separate districts. Davis became involved with the Negro Organization Society, a community-improvement organization in line with the non-confrontational style associated with Booker T. Washington, a few years after its 1910 start. During his tenure as president of the NOS, the organization funded voter registration programs and took full advantage of opportunities made possible by New Deal federal aid. Davis died in Portsmouth in 1946.
During the last half of the 1920s, he chaired the health committee, which funded a state agent for the promotion of sanitation in rural areas and helped secure a facility for African American consumptives. The committee also successfully lobbied for public health nurses for the black population funded in part by state and local governments and in part by the NOS and other charitable organizations. Elected president of the NOS in 1930, Davis led the group for the next twelve years. During his tenure, the organization took full advantage of opportunities made possible by the New Deal and funneled federal aid to client organizations and communities. In addition, Davis created a department devoted to “Better Business.” During this era the NOS also began to support citizenship training and to fund voter registration programs.