Mississippi State University and Alcorn State University, along with the nation’s other seventy-four land-grant institutions, owe their existences in large part to the work of one man, Justin Smith Morrill. Concerned by farmers’ lack of scientific training, Morrill, who represented Vermont in the US House of Representatives from 1855 to 1867 and in the US Senate from 1867 to 1898, proposed a series of bills to use public lands to help fund education. The idea of government-sponsored schools had been around since the early 1600s, but Jonathan Baldwin Turner, an Illinois College professor, promoted this new approach to funding schools during the 1850s. Morrill drew on Turner’s ideas and on the success of Europe’s agricultural colleges to build an argument for federal support to create “people’s colleges.”
In 1857 Morrill introduced the “Bill Granting Lands for Agricultural Colleges” and suggested that each state receive twenty thousand acres of public land for each representative and senator. The bill met resistance among many southern politicians, including Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis, and among many westerners, but it ultimately passed both the House and the Senate. However, Pres. James Buchanan vetoed the bill in 1859 because he thought it was unconstitutional. The following year, with a new president and with representatives and senators from the thirteen seceded southern states absent from Washington, Morrill reintroduced his bill. After increasing the amount of land to be allotted to thirty thousand acres per representative or senator, Congress passed the measure, and on 2 July 1862 Pres. Abraham Lincoln signed it into law.
The Morrill Act of 1862 provided that states could sell public lands or land scrip provided by the secretary of the interior, with the proceeds of these transactions going “to the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanical arts.”
In 1871, in the middle of Reconstruction, Mississippi formally rejoined the Union. Gov. James Lusk Alcorn wasted no time in petitioning the secretary of the interior for the state’s land scrip. Alcorn and many others supported separate but equal education for blacks, and on 13 May 1871 the state legislature accepted the terms of the Morrill Act by decreeing that two-fifths of the money from the land sales would go to the University of Mississippi and three-fifths would go to establish a university for African American students. The state purchased the Lorman site where Oakland College, a former Presbyterian school, had stood. The college, renamed Alcorn University, opened the same year, becoming the country’s first black land-grant college. Hiram Rhoades Revels, a state senator from Adams County and later the school’s first president, worked with Alcorn to prepare the bill that established the university.
The University of Mississippi used its portion of the scrip to hire a soil chemist as head of the new agriculture department. The program failed to interest students, however, and closed after four years. Angered by this failure, local chapters of the Patrons of Husbandry, a national farm organization, were determined to establish a land-grant school for whites in Mississippi. To that end, Grangers lobbied the legislature, and on 28 February 1878 the bill to create the Agricultural and Mechanical College of the State of Mississippi (now Mississippi State University) became law. In that same year, Alcorn University became Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College. It is now known as Alcorn State University.
- An Act Donating Public Lands to the Several States and Territories Which May Provide Colleges for the Benefit for Agriculture and Mechanical Arts, Stat. 12:503, 2 July 1862
- John K. Bettersworth, People’s University: The Centennial History of Mississippi State (1980)
- Craig L. LaMay, in A Digital Gift to the Nation: Fulfilling the Promise of the Digital and Internet Age, ed. Lawrence R. Grossman and Newton N. Minow (2001)
- Edward Mayes, History of Education in Mississippi (1899)
- Mary Fisher Robinson, Journal of Mississippi History 12 (January 1950)
- William B. Parker, The Life and Public Services of Justin Smith Morrill (1971)
- Josephine McCann Posey, Against Great Odds: The History of Alcorn State (1994)
- Roy V. Scott, Agricultural History (October 1969)