Founded in 1871, Alcorn State University is the oldest historically black land-grant institution in the United States and the second-oldest state-supported university in Mississippi. Alcorn is located in rural southwestern Mississippi, in Claiborne County, forty-five miles south of Vicksburg and forty miles north of Natchez. It was founded on a site originally occupied by Oakland College, a school for white youth established by Presbyterians in 1828 and closed as a result of the Civil War. The state purchased the abandoned Oakland College campus in 1871 for forty thousand dollars, named the new school after Gov. James L. Alcorn, and designated it for the education of black youth. Alcorn University’s first president was Hiram Rhoades Revels, the first black senator in US history.
The school initially had three major components: a four-year college course, a two-year preparatory course, and a three-year graded course. Subjects offered were English, Latin, and mathematics as well as those included in the Industrial Department—agriculture, carpeting, blacksmithing, shoemaking, printing, painting, nurse training, sewing, domestic science, and laundering. Room and board was five dollars a month. The institution, like other African American schools during these years, was more like a trade school than a college. It was at first exclusively for black males, but women were admitted in 1895.
In 1878 Alcorn University became Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College, and on the basis of the federal government’s 1862 Morrell Act, it was named a land-grant college. The Mississippi legislature’s goals for the institution clearly emphasized training rather than education: “The establishment and maintenance of a first class institution at which the youth of the state of Mississippi may acquire a common school education and a scientific and practical knowledge of agriculture, horticulture, and the mechanical arts, also in the proper growth and call of stock, without, however, excluding scientific and classic studies, including military tactics.”
In 1974, House Bill 298, signed by Gov. William L. Waller, gave all state-supported colleges university status, and Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College became Alcorn State University. By continually expanding, Alcorn has overcome the difficulties faced by a predominantly black school in a society that emphasizes white supremacy. The initial emphasis on preparing youth for service in both general and applied knowledge areas was accomplished despite lukewarm support. By the early 1990s, however, Alcorn had grown into a more diversified university. It has expanded its educational services to meet the needs of the community at large, a concept known today as the “communiversity.” The school provides an undergraduate education that enables students to continue their work in graduate and professional schools, engage in teaching, and enter other professions. The athletic program, which once encompassed only football, basketball, and baseball, now includes track, tennis, volleyball, and golf.
As Mississippi has come to recognize the importance of educating all of its citizens in the post-civil-rights world, Alcorn has gained in status and size. From eight faculty members in 1871, Alcorn has now grown to more than five hundred faculty and staff. The student body has increased from 179 male students to nearly 4,000 students—men and women, whites and blacks, and from all over the world. While early graduates of Alcorn had limited horizons, more recent graduates have gone on to success as doctors, lawyers, dentists, teachers, principals, superintendents, managers, business owners, and many other occupations. The university has had sixteen presidents, with Walter Washington (1969–94) serving as the longest-tenured president at any US institution of higher education. Alcorn State is now fully accredited, with seven divisions and degree programs in more than fifty areas. The facilities have grown from three buildings to more than eighty, while graduating classes have grown from three members to more than five hundred per year. The more than twenty thousand alumni include educators Cleopatra Thompson, S. E. Johnson, and Ruby Stutts Lyells; civil rights activists Medgar Evers and Myrlie Evers-Williams; and NFL star Steve McNair. Roots author Alex Haley studied at Alcorn as a teenager, and Memphis business leader Joseph Edison Walker and journalist Horace R. Cayton were early graduates. Alcorn State is now a true university, having long discarded its trade school status and image.
- D. Milan Davis, Pushing Forward Okolona: Okolona Industrial School (1938)
- Guy Merlerson Dunham, Centennial History of Alcorn A&M College (1971)
- Josephine M. Posey, Against Great Odds: The History of Alcorn State University (1994)
- Tammy Wayne Rogers, Journal of Mississippi History (May 1974); George A. Sewell, Crisis (April 1972)