Support for public education has long been a standard in the United States. English settlers brought the idea of setting aside land for public education. The Ordinance of 1785, which was authored by Thomas Jefferson, followed the New England colonies’ policy of reserving land for school purposes. The unit of measurement utilized for land was a thirty-six-square-mile area, a township. Each township consisted of thirty-six one-mile-square sections containing 640 acres. The ordinance set aside each sixteenth section within that township for the maintenance of public schools.
The Continental Congress’s Ordinance of 1787 continued support for public schools. The 1802 agreement that created the state of Georgia provided that when the land area that now includes Alabama and Mississippi achieved statehood, those states would be admitted under the conditions and restrictions set forth in the Ordinance of 1787, and an 1803 act provided that when land south of Tennessee and west of Georgia was sold, the sixteenth section in each township would be set aside for support of public schools, with title vesting in the state as trustee.
It eventually became apparent that some Sixteenth Section Lands had already been sold either by England or the United States. Congress therefore passed another act in 1806 dealing with “lieu lands”—that is, that were provided for the use of schools in to replace lands that had already been conveyed. These lieu lands were later sold, mainly owing to difficulty of managing them: most of the lands were located far from township authorities. The Sixteenth Section Lands were also a subject of dispute after the 1832 Treaty of Pontotoc Creek, under which the United States was to sell the Chickasaw land and give the proceeds to the Chickasaw. The result was that sixteenth sections in the Chickasaw country were sold, and no provisions were made for school lands.
Mississippi became a state in 1817. Instances of neglect and abuse of the land trust started soon thereafter. Section 95 of the 1890 Mississippi Constitution, under which the state still operates, set forth that lands belonging to the state could never be donated to private corporations or individuals, and Section 211 provided that Sixteenth Section Lands could not be sold. The Sixteenth Section Reform Act of 1978, largely accomplished through the efforts of state land commissioner John Ed Ainsworth, established standards for the proper management of Sixteenth Section Lands. Continued efforts by the secretary of state, whose office took up the functions of the state land commissioner, have increased the annual income from those lands from between two and three million dollars per acre to approximately seventy million dollars by 2014. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, the Office of the Secretary of State oversaw the management and leasing of more than 640,000 acres of Sixteenth Section public school trust lands by 106 local school districts.
The Mississippi Supreme Court’s decisions in Talley v. Board of Supervisors of Smith County (1975) and Hill v. Thompson (1989) played a vital role in this effort. The Hill case concerned a lease in downtown Forest that had been issued for ninety-nine years for a one-time payment of $7.50. The court held that the Sixteenth Section lease in that case was voidable and that all Sixteenth Section leases must be issued for fair market value.
Today, Sixteenth Section management provides significant financial support for the public schools in Mississippi that have Sixteenth Section lands under their jurisdiction.
- 1890 Miss. Const., Art. IV, Sec. 95, Art. VIII, Sec. 211
- Richard Clayton and Frank Spencer, eds., A Special Report on Sixteenth Section Land Management (9 December 1977)
- Patricia Galloway, Private Land Claims Research Material, 1984, Mississippi Department of Archives and History
- Hill v. Thompson, 564 So. 2d 1 (1989); Miss. Code Ann., sec. 29–3-1 et seq.
- Mississippi Department of Education website, http://www.mde.k12.ms.us/
- Mississippi Secretary of State website, http://www.sos.ms.gov/
- David Lamar Powe, “A History of Sixteenth Section Land Laws, Court Decisions, and Management Practices since 1970” (PhD dissertation, University of Southern Mississippi, 1984)
- Tally v. Board of Supervisors of Smith County, 323 So. 2d 547 (1975)