Justin Smith Morrill,  author of Land Grant College Acts, authored legislation that created American public higher education and struggled with fellow Congressmen from 1862 until 1890 to pass Land Grant College Acts to prepare black and white U.S. students for the industrial revolution. 

Justin Smith Morrill father of land grant college act

Justin Smith Morrill

The first Morrill Land Grant College Act, which passed in 1862, provided public land sales to fund institutions for public higher education. This meant that the schools established under the jurisdiction of former Confederate states were ‘white only,’ excluding former slaves from higher education because those states were segregated.

Justin Smith Morrill was an outstanding writer, in that, he wrote advertisements and marketing materials for his mercantile business and, after being elected to Congress, he wrote laws and proposals for laws to be introduced into Congress along with numerous speeches to support his special interests and those of his constitutients in Vermont.

Writing was a significant activity throughout his life. Writing remains a central task in the career of professionals throughout history and today. However, today, writing has taken on an aspect that could not have been imagined during the lifetime of Justin Morrill. That modern aspect is writing for the internet. It is no longer enough to write well for print. Today, one must write with technology in mind, such as social media, eBooks, iPads and internet marketing. A look backward, though, is worth taking to see our history through the eyes of the forefathers.

 In an effort to guarantee higher education for the former slave population, Morrill was finally able to write, introduce and lobby to pass a new public college  law in 1890. This law prohibited any state from using its 1862 federal land grant funds for the education of white students only. Further, the law specified that former Confederate states maintaining ‘separate but equal’ colleges for different races had to propose an equitable division of federal land grant funds to provideformer slaves with a higher education at ‘separate but equal’ facilities. If the former Confederate states did not comply with the law, they would have to allow all students, regardless of color, to attend their formerly segregated schools.Now that was a piece of good writing that boxed in Morrill’s opponents. Every word had to be carefully chosen to demand, not suggest, the correct response.

In former slave states in the Jim Crow Deep South, still operating according to segregated southern conventions, the 1890 college law threatened local order and custom. Men in Congress representing those states were at odds with the legislation and with Morrill for introducing it. However, southern congressmen had no choice but to agree to provide public schools of higher education for African American students because they did not want their existing public colleges to be subject to integration as Morrill’s law mandated.

Jim Crow held a special place in American entertainment and American law after the Civil War, and markedly after Reconstruction. Jim Crow Laws and Black Codes made discrimination and violence against former slaves legal. This behavior toward former slaves is demonstrated its attitude in one of the most famous songs in American history–My Old Kentucky Home–which began as a minstrel song. The following is from the third verse of My Old Kentucky Home, written by Stephen Collins Foster, published in 1853 by Pound & Company in New York.

The head must bow and the back will have to bend,
Wherever the darky may go;
A few more days, and the trouble all will end,
In the field where the sugar-canes grow;

Generally, minstrel characters were depicted in stage shows by white performers in blackface–faces blackened with burned cork or paint. Minstrel shows, which had become world famous and respectable by the time the Civil War started, performing these types of songs on stage, spawned the popular character Jim Crow, a 19th-Century stereotype of enslaved African Americans. The Jim Crow character became politically linked to the degradation of black people and to the entertainment of white audiences until the 1960s. From the beginning, the character personified racial oppression and segregation in the United States.

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To the contrary of the Jim Crow phenomenon, Morrill used his expert use of language and precise writing skills toll eventually get his way. In spite of the friction he caused among fellow congressmen and others in the Jim Crow South, Morrill wrote a law that caused each southern state without an African American Land Grant College by 1890 to establish one under the second Morrill Land Grant College Act. Throughout the South, this Act established sixteen black public colleges and universities, known as the 1890 Land Grant Institutions. No other explanation exists for his ability to get the South o agree with his educational proposal, except that the law had to be written in a way that threatened their way of life if they did not comply. At a time when the United States was entering a transition from an agricultural and rural society, to an industrial and urban one, the Land Grant College Act of 1890 was intended to extend higher education to those who had formerly been excluded and to expand this education from exclusively normal school or teacher training to include in science, agriculture and engineering, as well as classical studies previously reserved to clergymen, teachers, physicians and lawyers, which had previously been considered to be the domain of the white elite, leaving out black students and poor white students like Morrill. Morrill, born in Strafford, Vermont, in 1810, was the son of a blacksmith making enough of a living to tend his family and homestead and not earning enough money to spend on Morrill’s education when he came of college age. Morrill, whodeeply believed in education for his own sake, as well as the good of the nation’s youth and others who wanted to attain a better life, was forced to leave school at age 15 and go to work to help support a family that could not afford to send him to a college or university, all of which were still private institutions at that time. These private schools were expensive and mostly available only to wealthy students. 

Because Morrill was unable financially to attend college and because he knew so many other young people, black and white, who were in the same predicament as he, it seems he became a bit obsessed in making the United States provide an affordable higher education to its populace, both black and white. Lack of formal academic training did not prevent Morrill from educating himself in architecture, landscaping and gardening. Before going to Congress, he built a successful career as a merchant and built an impressive Gothic Revival home in Strafford, Vermont, the place of his birth.

The second Morrill Land Grant College Act passed on August 30, 1890, making possible the establishment of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University (NC A&T) in the fall of that year. The North Carolina General Assembly enacted the law that “mandated a separate college for the colored race,” satisfying ‘separate but equal’ requirements of the former Confederate South. This new legislation provided for comparable education that the first Morrill Land Grant College Act of 1862 had provided for white students only.

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