Agriculture teacher Rochelle Arrington ‘87, the first Black woman to teach high school agriculture in North Carolina, has been awarded one of its top civilian honors, the Order of the Long Leaf Pine. With her is NC Rep. Garland Pierce, who represents Hoke and Scotland counties.  Photo is courtesy of Hoke County Schools.

Rochelle Arrington wanted to take an agriculture class in high school not because she had a deep love for farming. Rather, she signed up for the course to stir up her guidance counselor.

It was the late ‘70s, and boys were taking home economics. Why, she wondered, couldn’t girls take agriculture?

“I will never forget,” Arrington said. “When I went in and told them I wanted to take agriculture, my guidance counselor said, ‘I wish y’all would just register like y’all are supposed to — girls take home ec, boys take ag.’”

Undeterred, Arrington took that high school agriculture class — and found her life’s work. She also achieved a couple of notable firsts: First female agricultural education graduate at A&T. First Black woman to teach high school agriculture in North Carolina.

In December, this trailblazing graduate of N.C. A&T’s College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences received one of the state’s highest civilian honors: the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, awarded to those who have shown exemplary service to North Carolina.

“I really didn’t have any direction. I thought it would be a good idea – something to do,” Arrington said of signing up for that agriculture class more than four decades ago. “It actually became my passion. I’m 110 percent glad I did it. I don’t regret it. Not one day.”

From the country to the classroom

Arrington grew up Warren County, about 100 miles up Interstate 85 from N.C. A&T. Her family had nine acres on which they raised tobacco and a little cotton, and they grew vegetables in their acre-and-a-half garden. The family always had a hog, and sometimes, a steer.

Arrington, then Rochelle White, was a good student. When her agriculture teacher at Norlina High School suggested that she apply to A&T, Arrington did, and was accepted. It was a comfortable choice; Arrington’s identical twin sister and their three other siblings all attended A&T as well.

“The Aggie ‘thing’ in our house is real strong,” Arrington said.

Arrington was one of two girls in her high school agriculture class. At A&T, she was usually the only female student in her agriculture education classes.

A&T was where she met the man who would become her husband, Marlon Arrington, an ag ed major from Philadelphia. Marlon got his degree, taught school for a while, then joined the U.S. Army, where he served as a nuclear, biological and chemical specialist.

Rochelle, married and pregnant with their first child, decided to pause her classwork at A&T, and the couple moved to Fayetteville. In 1987, she arranged to take the last class she needed — chemistry, plus a lab — at nearby Fayetteville State University.

Agriculture Education is A&T’s oldest degree program. After nearly a century, Arrington became the first woman to earn that degree.

“I was happy to be (Marlon’s) wife and his daughter’s mother,” said Rochelle, who now has four grown children. “But he said, ‘You’re going to finish.’ I’m glad he did.”

Degree in hand, Arrington became a teacher — first in Fayetteville, then in Vance County and finally at Hoke County High School. In 1998, her first year there, she accomplished another first: She became the first Black woman to teach high school agriculture in the state of North Carolina.

“You had a lot of men (teachers), and they weren’t used to women, Black or white,” Arrington said. “They didn’t want to hear what we had to say. They thought we didn’t know what we were talking about. It was hard but I hung in there.”

The key, Arrington said, was putting in the hard work that yielded visible rewards. Teaching horticulture meant watering plants in the school’s greenhouse on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. The flowers, vegetables and hanging baskets didn’t know it was the weekend, she said; they only knew they needed water.

“I just stayed and I showed them,” Arrington said. “Ag is hands-on, so the product that you turn out is what gets you your respect.”

Arrington also had a knack with students from all backgrounds. She called herself a disciplinarian, but her students responded when she treated them with firmness, fairness and respect, she said. If she needed to get their attention, she’d add a little bass to her big booming voice. It always worked.

“Mrs. Arrington built a firm foundation for our agriculture department at Hoke County High School,” said Dana Chavis, Ed.D., executive director of career and technical education for Hoke County Schools. “She lived for a strong purpose and she knew hard work was not an option. It was necessary.”

Still hard at work

Alston retired in December, 2020 after 22 years at the high school. But she hasn’t let work go entirely.

The school is starting a community garden on a plot of land near the greenhouse, and she’s advising them on that effort. She’s also working as a home health care aide.

“I knew she wouldn’t be a good retiree,” Marlon Arrington said. “That comes from her daddy. He’s got to be moving and doing something.”

On Dec. 14, 2021, she was inducted into the Order of the Long Leaf Pine at a Hoke County school board meeting. The school district nominated her.

Antoine J. Alston, Ph.D., a CAES professor and associate dean, has known Arrington for two decades through his former work as the agricultural education program coordinator at A&T. He described her as “passionate about agricultural education and her students” throughout her entire teaching career.

The award, he added, “represents the dynamic and impactful career that she had as a secondary agricultural educator for Hoke County Schools and her untiring commitment to the development of our state’s and nation’s future agricultural leaders.

“She is truly well deserving of this award.”