DOVER — For 125 years, the 1890s land-grant institutions have played a vital role not only in Delaware, but across the United States as well.
Delaware State University is one of 19 existing land-grant universities that commemorated the 125th anniversary of the second Morrill Act through various events this past week.
The act supported higher education for African-Americans.
“If it wasn’t for the second Morrill Act there wouldn’t be a Delaware State University and I wouldn’t be here,” said Kyle Maull, a sophomore studying agricultural business at DSU. “It paved the way for me and other African-Americans to go to college.”
DSU has evolved from its humble beginnings into an important player in the community.
Those beginnings start with Justin Morrill, a representative and later U.S. senator from Vermont, who authored the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, respectively.
The first act, approved during the Civil War, offered land and money to establish institutions of higher education in each state. It was first proposed in 1857 and passed by Congress in 1859, but was vetoed by President James Buchanan.
In 1861, Rep. Morrill resubmitted the act with the amendment that the proposed institutions would teach military tactics as well as engineering and agriculture. Aided by the secession of many of the southern states that did not support the plans, the reconfigured Morrill Act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862.
The act was meant to help those in the working class obtain a liberal and practical education and was designed to provide education to advance both blacks and whites. However, segregation of the races restricted African-Americans in southern states from taking advantage of the opportunity to attend college.
The seed is planted
“The intent of the legislation at first was not to create other institutions,” said Dr. Dyremple B. Marsh, DSU’s dean of the Department of Agriculture and Related Sciences.
“The intent was to give the 1860s’ schools more money. However, to get that money you had to accept blacks, but some of these schools didn’t want to do that, so they didn’t get that money. That money went to the state to encourage the formation of these institutions.”
In 1890, Morrill, by then a U.S. senator, crafted another piece of legislation aimed to help African-American students.
To receive funds through the second act, states were required to prove race was not a factor in institutions’ admissions policies or else to designate a separate college for African-Americans.
The Delaware General Assembly took advantage of the act to pass legislation in 1891 to establish the State College for Colored Students, which would later become Delaware State University.
“It gave them an out,” said Carlos Holmes, DSU’s director of news services. “If you didn’t want to accept African-Americans in your already established schools, which in our case was known as Delaware College and which we now know as the University of Delaware, they had to create an opportunity.
“Since the state wasn’t interested in integrating that school the opportunity still existed and that’s how the State College for Colored Students was created, which we now know as Delaware State University.”
The Agriculture Department played a significant role during the university’s early beginnings.
“Because of the legislation, agriculture mechanical arts and military science was integral to the university based on the funds that it had,” Dr. Marsh said. “Over time, funds became available for the schools of the 1890 institutions.
We were able to get funds from the federal government based on the number of farms in the state and the number of rural residents.”
“Those funds were used for agricultural research that addressed the immediate concerns of the farmers and the people in general,” Dr. Marsh added. “The farming operating was supporting campus population and making it less expensive to feed students by growing our own food, which helped keep students in school.”
Dr. Marsh said DSU now does production agriculture, which goes into sales that supplement the amount of funds the college has for research and giving scholarships to students.
“The scholarship that I have is only for 1890 land-grant universities,” Mr. Maull said. “The department of agriculture gives money and sponsors students so they can learn about the discipline.
“Agriculture really has been the foundation of Delaware State University. A lot of people don’t study the discipline anymore, but I think it’s an important discipline ... Everyone should learn to understand it.”
Past, present and future
From a gubernatorial proclamation to talks to a walk, last week was packed with events celebrating the 125th anniversary of the Morrill Act. The purpose was much more than for entertainment value.
The events gave current students a chance to see how the school has evolved over years, said DSU President Dr. Harry L. Williams.
“It provided an opportunity for students see how we arrived to this point,” he said. “It gives them a clear understanding about the history of the university because it just didn’t happen overnight.”
Mr. Maull agreed.
“I think it’s very important for us to understand our heritage and know where the school came from,” he said.
There were just 12 students in the first class at the State College for Colored Students. Since then, the school has graduated more than 19,000 students.
“When we first started out the school was primarily for African-Americans; now we’re a diverse campus,” Dr. Williams said. “It’s a significant impact in terms of what we mean to the community. It’s part of the legacy and the economic engine of this part of the region for the state.”
He sees a bright future ahead for the university.
“Moving forward, I think we’re going to continue to build on what we currently have,” Dr. Williams said. “We have the foundation to make everything even stronger. We hope to continue to bring in quality students to a quality facility.
“I see nothing but positive things for Delaware State University.”