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Morrill Land-Grant Act Sesquicentennial

2012 April 7
by Mandy Mastrovita

African American farmers met at the Georgia Industrial College at Savannah (now Savannah State University), the state's African American land-grant institution in 1909 to discuss how to highlight their agricultural and mechanical achievements. From the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library's Historical Broadsides Collection.

2012 is the one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the Morrill Act, (also known as the Land-Grant College Act, or the Morrill-Wade Act), a two-part piece of legislation, the first of which was signed into law by President Lincoln in 1862. Its sponsor, Justin Smith Morrill, a U.S. representative from Vermont (and self-made businessman who did not attend college himself) first proposed the statute in 1857 to “enable the industrial classes of the country to obtain a cheap, solid, and substantial education.” Each state was granted thirty thousand acres of federal land per congressman; states containing sufficient public lands would use their own; states without enough public lands were furnished land “scrips” that authorized the selection of federal land in other states and territories. The profit made from selling the land would finance their home state’s land-grant institution. The legislation was largely opposed by Westerners and Southerners the first time it was introduced, primarily because the older, more heavily-populated Northern states stood to gain much more, based upon their congressional representation. The second attempt to pass the bill in 1862 succeeded due to the absence of Southern state representation in Congress during the Civil War, and because the scope of the proposal was broadened to include military training and engineering. Initially, Confederate states were excluded from the legislation, but eventually, benefits were extended to them. In 1872, the University of Georgia was revived from near-bankruptcy when it was designated a land-grant institution under the act; the University of Georgia also established the Georgia College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts in Dahlonega (now North Georgia College and State University) with funds that were received from the Morrill Act.

Although eighteen separate state colleges had received land-grant funding by 1885, they still hadn’t received enough state support to remain sustainable; in 1890, Morrill, now a senator, sponsored a second act (also known as the Second Morrill Land-Grant Act, or the Morrill-McComas Act) that granted further funding. The 1890 act also instituted federal oversight over the land-grant system; this included requiring Southern and border states practicing de jure and de facto racial segregation to establish land-grant schools for African Americans–as of then, only Virginia, Mississippi, and South Carolina had done so. After the passage of the Second Morrill Land-Grant Act, the Georgia General Assembly established Georgia State Industrial College, which became Savannah State College, and served as the state’s land-grant institution for African Americans; It is now Savannah State University, the oldest historically black public university in Georgia. Information about the university’s history as a land-grant institution is provided inside the Catalogue Edition of the Georgia State College of the University System of Georgia (Volume 1946-1947) starting on page 18, and ending on page 20 of the document.

Public service and outreach missions at white land-grant institutions were further bolstered by subsequent federal land-grant acts, which included the Hatch Act of 1887 (which established state agricultural experiment stations to support scientific research), the 1914 Smith-Lever Act (sponsored by Georgia senator Hoke Smith, which provided federal funding to administer agricultural extension services through land-grant universities), among others.

Page 34 of the 1939 Hubertonian, the yearbook of Georgia State Industrial College (Georgia's African American land-grant institution in 1939), which features photos of the Agricultural Association and the Home Economics Club. From the Archives of Savannah State University collection.

Although educational opportunities for African Americans were broadened to some extent by the 1890 land-grant legislation, funding inequities and racial discrimination remained constant for nearly a century, and  despite more recent commitments to counteract these inequalities, African American land-grant institutions have been impacted to this day. Most of the legislative acts that benefited white institutions denied their African American counterparts access to equal funding, or restricted funding to support only certain kinds of vocational training. For the most part, this did not improve until the passage of the Food and Agriculture Act in 1977. Most states that designated separate land-grant institutions for African Americans did not provide research funding; in this case, African American land-grant institutions in Georgia were an exception, and some state support was provided.

In 1947, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia reorganized the missions of the state’s historically black public universities, and transferred land-grant status from Georgia State Industrial College to Fort Valley State College (now Fort Valley State University.) The transcribed record of the transfer is available in the the Georgia Legislative Documents database (it is in the Acts and Resolutions of the General Assembly for the State of Georgia Regular Session, 1949 (1949 Vol. 1 — Page: 1144 Sequential Number: 283, law number 267).

Today, Fort Valley State University continues to serve Georgians with community-centered agricultural outreach and rural development efforts. Assigned agents in their Small Farmer Outreach Training and Technical Assistance Project help small farmers in twenty-three southeast Georgia counties obtain federal crop insurance, secure loans from federal, state, and local sources to cover operating and equipment costs, and otherwise advocate on behalf of limited resource farmers.

On April 11, the University of Georgia’ Student Government Association will host a panel discussion and barbecue in honor of the Morrill Act’s sesquicentennial; the discussion will focus on the impact of the University of Georgia’s mission as a land-grant university. A barbecue dinner open to all students, faculty and staff will precede the discussion at 6 p.m. on Herty Field.

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