At its annual Founders Day celebration Thursday, N.C. A&T will give a nod to the Morrill Act of 1890, a piece of congressional legislation that turns 125 years old this year.

The Morrill Act is responsible for creating about 70 universities and making higher education in the United States more democratic. These land-grant colleges are among the nation’s biggest and best-known schools, and they engineered many of the agricultural and industrial advances that built this nation.

“Higher education in the United States began way before the Morrill Act,” said M. Ray McKinnie, an associate dean in A&T’s School of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences and the university’s in-house expert on the Morrill Act. “But higher ed was private, more for the socially elite classes. ...

“(Congressman Justin Smith) Morrill saw a need for public education. He wanted an open-door education so the sons of toil could have an opportunity at a practical education that every-day people could receive.”

1. There were actually two Morrill acts — and the first was vetoed.

U.S. Rep. Justin Smith Morrill, a Republican congressman from Vermont, introduced a land-grant college bill in 1857 that would let each state establish a college that would specialize in agriculture and mechanical arts — subjects like carpentry, mechanical drawing and machine-shop trades. The bill squeaked through Congress despite opposition from Southern states, but President James Buchanan vetoed it.

After the Southern states seceded, the Morrill Act sailed through Congress, and President Abraham Lincoln signed it in to law in 1862.

Because there was a war on, the first Morrill Act also required land-grant schools to teach military tactics. That’s why today’s land-grant universities often have an agriculture school, an engineering college and a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program.

The Morrill Act proved so popular that Congress passed a second one in 1890, aimed at the reconstructed Southern states. (More on that later.)

2. Land-grant colleges weren’t necessarily built on the land granted.

To pay for the colleges, the Morrill Act gave each state 30,000 acres of federal land — hence the name land grant — for each member of a state’s congressional delegation. The states could put the new college on the federal land or sell it.

“One thing you could not do — you could not build buildings,” McKinnie said about the money. “You could use the money to hire faculty, to get the universities up and running. That’s been an issue over the years. People complained that there wasn’t ever enough money.”

3. The first land-grant colleges were in the North.

The first Morrill Act barred rebellious Southern states from accepting federal money. Morrill Act money didn’t flow to Southern states until after the Civil War.

Universities established under the first Morrill Act include The Ohio State University, Michigan State University and The Pennsylvania State University. Most land-grant colleges are public. A handful, including Cornell University in New York and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are private.

4. The second Morrill Act created today’s historically black public universities.

Congress passed the second Morrill Act in 1890 to further support land-grant colleges. But Congress embedded a stick in that carrot: Land-grant colleges had to admit black students, or states had to establish schools for African Americans.

The act didn’t affect Northern land-grant universities, which already had accepted a few black students.

Southern and border states, from Delaware to Texas, took the separate-but-equal route and opened what are now called 1890 land-grant universities. These schools, now numbering 19, include Florida A&M, Delaware State, Virginia State and South Carolina State.

One of them was N.C. A&T, which opened in 1891 in Raleigh as an annex of the private Shaw University. The trustees of the school then known as the Agricultural and Mechanical College for the Colored Race voted a year later to move the campus to Greensboro, which had dangled 14 acres and $11,000. The college opened at its current site in Greensboro in 1893.

5. A&T was the state’s second land-grant college, but N.C. State wasn’t the first.

It was UNC-Chapel Hill.

UNC was scheduled to get the monies from the first Morrill Act in 1875, but the university never got around to establishing agriculture or engineering schools. It took 12 years of lobbying by farmers, progressives and the state’s first agriculture commissioner before the legislature diverted the money to a new farming and industrial school.

The legislature created the N.C. College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in 1887. The land-grant institution known today as N.C. State held its first classes two years later.

Contact John Newsom at (336) 373-7312 and follow @JohnNewsomNR on Twitter.

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