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Origin of Land-Grants

The birth of land-grant institutions is a long and complex story that begins with the late Vermont Senator Justin Smith Morrill. Morrill, an abolitionist, desired that education be made available to everyone regardless of social class. On July 2, 1862, the first Morrill Act was signed into law, reserving 30,000 acres of federal lands to each state for the establishment of schools. These institutions taught subjects like engineering, agriculture, and military science. In the words of Morrill, the idea was to make education possible for the “sons of toil,” such as farmers and other working-class people.

Although considered “sons of toil,” most African Americans were not emancipated until 1865. The years following emancipation were not easy, yet they understood the importance of education. Schools for Black children and youth, for example, were being established at all levels. By 1890, however, segregation was the law of the land in the South, therefore forbidding Black students from attending predominately white colleges, including 1862 schools. Hence the second Morrill Act was signed into law on August 30, 1890.

The Morrill Act of 1890 granted African Americans accesses to the United States Land-Grant University Higher Education System. Separate land-grant schools were established to educate Black students in the same subjects. As a result, institutions known as Negro land-grant institutions were founded. Today, these schools are called 1890 land-grant institutions or Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Land-Grant Universities

Alabama has three land-grant universities: Alabama A&M University, Auburn University, and Tuskegee University. Auburn is one of 57 1862 institutions, while Tuskegee and AAMU are classified as 1890 land-grant institutions. There are 19 1890 universities.

Land-grant status was also designated in 1994 to Native American tribally governed colleges and universities that primarily serve Native American populations. Today, there are 35 1994 land-grant institutions.

Purpose of Land-Grants

Land-grant institutions provide teaching, research, and extension (community outreach) to state residents. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the federal partner and primary funder of land-grant’s research and extension efforts. Educational outreach and research are based on focus areas outlined by NIFA. For Alabama Extension these areas include:

  • Global Food Security and Hunger
  • Natural Resources Conservation and Management, Environmental Sustainability, and Climate Change
  • Food System and Food Safety
  • Human Nutrition, Well-being, Health, and Obesity
  • Sustainable Energy
  • Community Development
  • Family, Home, and 4-H Youth Development

States are expected to match federal dollars appropriated through the USDA’s Farm Bill that allows educational institutions to fulfill their three-fold mission. As previously stated, the Cooperative Extension System uses these resources to implement outreach programs. These programs enhance the lives of American citizens and most are free to the public.

1890 Universities

Today, 1890 land-grant and other HBCUs continue to play an important role in educating Black students. For example, according to the United Negro College Fund, HBCUs comprise only three percent of all colleges and universities but produce nearly 20 percent of African American graduates. They also produce 25 percent of Black graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In addition, the United States Department of Education reports that HBCUs graduate more Black doctoral degree holders, officers in the armed forces, and federal judges.

The 1890 land-grant institutions cemented their place in history by opening doors to Black students at a time when it was unpopular for them to pursue an education. These universities still reach underserved populations today. 1890 land-grant schools also provide a supportive environment for first-generation Black college students, making them just as relevant today as they were when initially established.

The Legacy Continues

Today, all land-grant universities continue the legacy of Senator Morrill by providing educational opportunities to anyone willing to learn.

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