Highlights from the William and Mary Coker Joslin Papers: Mary Joslin, Woman of Many Talents

[This blog post was written by Elizabeth Crowder, contract archivist in the Special Collections Branch of the State Archives of North Carolina.]

Under the supervision of Fran Tracy-Walls, private manuscripts archivist at the State Archives of North Carolina, I am arranging and describing materials in the William and Mary Coker Joslin Papers (PC.1929). This work is made possible through generous funding from the Joslins’ daughter Ellen Devereux Joslin.

Mary Coker (far left, with cello) at Vassar College, ca. 1943, around the same time she was experimenting with soybean cultivation.

Mary Coker (far left, with cello) at Vassar College, ca. 1943, around the same time she was experimenting with soybean cultivation. PC.1929.1

In 1975 and 1980, Hartsville, S.C., native and longtime Raleigh, N.C., resident Mary Coker Joslin (1922–2016) earned master’s and doctorate degrees in French from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She taught the language at Ravenscroft School and Saint Augustine’s University, and her fascination with medieval French literature led her to publish a book on the subject with her daughter Carolyn Coker Joslin Watson. However, some thirty years before her graduate studies in French, Mary Joslin’s academic pursuits had taken a different direction. In 1944, she earned a degree in botany from Vassar College. Joslin earned her master’s degree in sociology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1946. Both of these endeavors revealed her interest in social causes.

Mary Joslin’s undergraduate studies were likely influenced by the work of her father, David Robert Coker (1870–1938), and her uncle William Chambers Coker. David R. Coker championed agricultural reform and experimented with plant breeding. Both pursuits had the ultimate goal of improving farmers’ yields and economic livelihoods. To these ends, David R. Coker’s Pedigreed Seed Company developed and sold superior varieties of cotton, corn, tobacco, and other crops. William C. Coker (1872–1953) was an associate professor of botany at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 1902 to 1945. In addition to his teaching duties, he made an extensive study of Chapel Hill’s flora, cultivated a six-acre garden on the university’s campus (the present-day Coker Arboretum), and authored numerous publications.

As a Vassar student, Mary Joslin experimented with soybean cultivation. In a research paper entitled “Southern Agriculture and the Soybean,” which she submitted for her Plant Science 385 class in April 1944, Joslin carried on her father’s tradition of linking improved crops and farming methods with better living conditions for the poorest southerners. She argued that southern cotton cultivation only exacerbated farmers’ ongoing financial difficulties dating from the post–World War I agricultural depression and the Great Depression. Southern tenant farmers’ profits from cotton went back into the crop lien system, notorious for encouraging debt. Additionally, cotton limited its growers’ food supply—it had to be worked during the same season that was best for food crops—and wore out the soil.

Mary Coker (second from left) and her college classmate Phyllis Hickney (far left) working in a Hartsville, S.C., cornfield, 1942. Coker and Hickney worked on corn cultivation during a summer break from Vassar.

Mary Coker (second from left) and her college classmate Phyllis Hickney (far left) working in a Hartsville, S.C., cornfield, 1942. Coker and Hickney worked on corn cultivation during a summer break from Vassar. PC.1929

Joslin urged southern farmers to improve their industry through crop rotation, reduced cotton cultivation, and increased planting of forage material. Soybeans were well suited to the southern climate. They would nourish the soil and feed livestock. In addition, the beans could potentially supply oil for manufacturing or other nonagricultural industries in the South. Pending the development of edible varieties, soybeans could also provide undernourished farming families with a food source high in protein, vitamins, and minerals.

Soybeans growing in Hartsville, S.C., ca. 1942. After several years’ experimentation, Mary Coker Joslin produced the Majos variety of soybean, named in her honor.

Soybeans growing in Hartsville, S.C., ca. 1942. After several years’ experimentation, Mary Coker Joslin produced the Majos variety of soybean, named in her honor. PC.1929

“Southern Agriculture and the Soybean” also recounts Joslin’s experience cultivating soybeans in a Vassar greenhouse and Hartsville, S.C., fields. After gathering general knowledge about the plants and their most desirable traits—such as a high yield—she began crossing and refining varieties. A circa 1961 report prepared by the director of agricultural research and the plant breeder for Coker’s Pedigreed Seed Company provides further detail about Joslin’s work. She crossed Toyko and Nandos soybeans in 1942, and a crop of the resulting variety yielded the Majos soybean, named in her honor, in 1945. The high-yielding Majos did not shatter (drop its seed), and it featured in the development of other high-yielding, nonshattering, disease-resistant varieties. Crop scientists throughout South Carolina and the United States were indebted to Joslin for creating the Majos soybean.

Mary Joslin’s interest in improving the lot of the underprivileged continued after her graduation from Vassar. Correspondence dating from 1943 to 1946 sheds light on her involvement with the South Carolina Opportunity School, which coincided with her graduate coursework in sociology. In letters to William Joslin (1920–2011), then her fiancée, Mary Joslin mentioned compiling information from questionnaires she had sent to Opportunity School alumni. She investigated the impact the schoolwork had had on students’ lives, and she incorporated her findings into her master’s thesis, “Some Social Effects of Adult Education in South Carolina.”

Wil Lou Gray founded the South Carolina Opportunity School in 1921 to assist those who could not obtain a public school education or had not advanced beyond the fifth grade. Most attendees were farm laborers or mill workers, and by the 1930s, black and white students could enroll. The coursework involved no grades or exams, and it combined lessons in reading, writing, and arithmetic with training in citizenship, etiquette, domestic arts, health and hygiene, and morals and religion.

Around 1944, Mary Joslin taught an Opportunity School course entitled Social and Economic Problems of South Carolina. In a report on her work for this class, she outlined a variety of discussion topics for her students: health, housing, education, agriculture, manufacturing, race relations, and current affairs. Joslin revisited the ideas for agricultural improvement she laid out in her aforementioned paper on soybeans. On the topics of health and race relations, she tackled universal medical insurance and whites’ prejudice. In enumerating the arguments for and against affordable health care for all, Joslin countered the possibility that this entitlement would adversely affect physicians’ salaries, writing, “The present situation is frought [sic] with danger to thousands of human lives.” In discussing race relations, she put the onus on whites to stop using racial slurs, to teach their children “to be tolerant, just, and kind to people of all color and belief,” and to ponder what life in the South was truly like for blacks. “If you are yourself unable to speak out for racial democracy,” Joslin wrote, “commend others who do so.”

Certificate honoring Mary Coker’s December 1944 induction into Alpha Kappa Alpha, a national honorary sociological fraternity. In 1946, Coker earned a master’s degree in sociology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Certificate honoring Mary Coker’s December 1944 induction into Alpha Kappa Alpha, a national honorary sociological fraternity. In 1946, Coker earned a master’s degree in sociology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Moreover, Joslin’s Opportunity School experience influenced her 1949 monograph People in South Carolina. In this work, Joslin reiterated most points from her report on her Opportunity School class. However, her comments on education went further in championing its necessity for all South Carolinians. In discussing children in farming families, she stated, “The fact is that many South Carolina farmers have not taken their responsibility as parents seriously enough. Many have considered the child’s work [on the farm] more important than his education into useful adulthood” (7). Later in the book, Joslin declared, “Ignorance itself is a real enemy of progress in education. Though many parents are eager for their children to have opportunities which they lacked, this is not the rule. Uneducated parents often do not see the importance of encouraging their children to stay in school. It is a common human failing for a man to think, ‘What was good enough for my father and me is good enough for my boy’” (37).

In People in South Carolina, Joslin went on to discuss the lack of educational opportunities available to black South Carolinians. She pointed out that only one in thirty-three black children in the state who started the first grade in 1936 went on to graduate from high school. In 1945–1946, South Carolina spent more than twice as much on educating a white child as it did on educating a black child. In many counties, no public transportation was available for those black children who were enrolled in school.

Moreover, Joslin disputed the notion that African Americans “[were] not intellectually able to take on the skilled work which would provide them with higher incomes” (54). Citing sociologist and economist Gunnar Myrdal, she stated, “Intelligence tests seem to show that Negroes with similar opportunities of experience and education do as well as whites, on the whole” (54). Finally, linking education to better health, Joslin advocated for opportunities for South Carolina African Americans to train to become doctors, nurses, and dentists.

Mary Coker Joslin’s early academic endeavors in botany and sociology reveal more than her love of learning—they also shed light on her sense of social justice. Her husband, William, shared this sensibility, and they were both strong supporters of progressive politics throughout their lives. Scholars and students researching women’s history, southern history, and North Carolina history will find a valuable trove of information in the correspondence, photographs, clippings, writings, family records, campaign and elections materials, and other documents included in the William and Mary Coker Joslin Papers.

References:

Coker, Mary. “Report for Mary Coker’s Home Room: ‘Social and Economic Problems of South Carolina.’” (ca. 1944). William and Mary Coker Joslin Papers, PC.1929. State Archives of North Carolina.

———. “Southern Agriculture and the Soybean” (ca. 1944). William and Mary Coker Joslin Papers, PC.1929. State Archives of North Carolina.

Joslin, Mary Coker. People in South Carolina. Columbia, S.C.: J. T. Anderson, State Superintendent of Education, 1949. William and Mary Coker Joslin Papers, PC.1929. State Archives of North Carolina.

Neely, J. Winston, and Henry W. Webb. “The Majos Soybean: An Outstanding Achievement in Scientific Plant Breeding” (ca. 1961). William and Mary Coker Joslin Papers, PC.1929. State Archives of North Carolina.