The Morrill Act of 1890: The Overlooked Civil Rights Act

Scholars often argue that the period between the Civil Rights Acts of 1875 and 1957 was devoid of successful congressional legislation to protect the rights of Black Americans. Some important attempts were made – like Senator Henry Blair’s (R-NH) bill in the 1880s to provide for primary education for both Blacks and Whites; Senator Henry Cabot Lodge’s (R-MA) bill in 1890-91 to protect the voting rights of African Americans; and separate bills in the 1920s (offered by Republicans) and 1930s (offered by Democrats) to make lynching a federal crime – but all failed in the end.

And an examination of the roll-call record in Congress would support this view. There were, in fact, no successful civil rights laws that were enacted by roll-call vote between 1875 and 1957. But adopting this criterion leads to the exclusion of an important civil rights law during this period – one that was adopted quickly in Congress and received almost no attention in the press at the time. This was the Morrill Act of 1890.

Justin Peck (Wesleyan University) and I discuss the Morrill Act of 1890 in detail in our forthcoming book. On April 30, 1890, Senator Justin Morrill (R-VT) – pictured below – sought to increase the annual appropriation to the public land-grant colleges established in his earlier Morrill Act of 1862.[1] Morrill proposed giving an extra $15,000 to each state in each year, increasing by $1,000 a year up to $25,000.[2] Morrill had pushed such federal-aid bills since 1872, and previous attempts included both common schools and colleges. After the Blair bill’s (presumed) final defeat a month earlier, Morrill stripped the common-school provision and focused exclusively on land-grant colleges.

On May 17, Morrill’s bill was reported out of committee with amendments, and debate began in June. After Morrill expounded on the value of the land-grant colleges and the need for additional funds, the Senate began consideration of the committee’s amendments. The second amendment read, “Provided, That no money shall be paid out under this act to any State or Territory for the support or maintenance of a college where a distinction of race or color is made in the admission of students, but the establishment and maintenance of such colleges separately for white and colored students shall be held to be in compliance with the provision of this act.” This amendment was agreed to without a roll call.

While this seemed to be a victory for pro-civil rights forces, even if a race-blind admission criterion was paired with a “separate but equal” provision, the fight was far from over. On June 21, John Morgan (D-AL) raised concerns about language in the bill that — in his mind — would give the federal government control over the curriculum in a state’s land-grant colleges. Morgan stated: “It seems to me the purpose of this bill is to fix upon our legislation the principle that Congress is to go into the States, take charge of educational institutions, and regulate what is to be done with them.” Morrill believed the bill’s language did not support Morgan’s argument. Nevertheless, seeking to secure passage, Morrill and his allies agreed to rewrite the bill.

Race reemerged as a point of contention when James Pugh (D-AL) offered the following amendment:

Provided further, That the Legislature of any State in which institutions of like character have been or may be established for the education of colored students in agricultural or the mechanical arts, whether styled colleges or not, and whether they have or [have] not received money heretofore under the act to which this is an amendment, may appropriate any portion of the fund received under this bill to such institutions so established and aided by such State as a compliance with the provision in reference to separate colleges for white and colored students.

“The necessity for my amendment,” he argued, “grows out of the proviso in the original bill reported from the committee that there shall be no distinction in the admission of students to the college on account of race or color, but that provision might be complied with by the establishment of separate colleges.” The creation of a more explicit “separate but equal” provision made the bill more palatable to Southerners, since they could accept the funds without having to agree to integrate their existing land-grant colleges.

While supportive of Pugh and his amendment, Randall Gibson (D-LA) offered a more succinct substitute: “That no money shall be paid out under this act to any State or Territory for the support and maintenance of a college where a distinction of race or color is made in the admission of students, but the establishment and maintenance of colleges, universities, and institutes for agricultural and mechanical education separate for whites and colored students shall be held to be a compliance with the provisions of this act.”

Pugh agreed to Gibson’s modification, leaving two issues to be resolved: Could multiple colleges in each state get a portion of the funds, or were they reserved for at most two (one black college and one white college)? And how would the funds be divided?

The second issue was the bigger sticking point because Republicans were skeptical that Southern legislatures, given disbursement power under the bill, would divide the funds fairly. Morrill’s bill stated that a legislature “may appropriate any portion of the fund received under this bill to such institution.” John Ingalls (R-KS) argued that this was unacceptable, as “the appropriation of $1 out of this fund will be a technical compliance with the terms of that provision.” Instead, he suggested, “It should read that there shall be an equal or proportionate share of the fund distributed for the education of the colored people in the several States.”

Ingalls’s comments elicited a number of suggestions about how the funds should be divided. William Chandler (R-NH) proposed dividing “the amount received among such colleges according to the relative numbers of the white and colored population within said State or Territory.” Pugh and James George (D-MS) opposed this language. Gibson then countered that the division ought to be “in proportion to the number of students in attendance in each college,” to which Ingalls said, “That will not do.”

Two days later, Morrill offered an amendment that he believed would satisfy lingering concerns. It read:

Provided further, That in any State in which there has been one college established in pursuance of the act of July 2, 1862, and also in which an educational institution of like character has been established and is now aided by such State from its own revenue for the education of colored stu- dents in agriculture and the mechanic arts, however named or styled, or whether or not it has received money heretofore under the act to which this act is an amendment, the Legislature of such State may propose and report to the Secretary of the Interior a just and equitable division of the fund to be received under this act between one college for white students and one institution for colored students established as aforesaid, which shall be divided into two parts and paid accordingly. And thereupon such institution for colored students shall be entitled to the benefits of this act and subject to its provisions as much as it would have been if it had been included under the act of 1862; and the fulfillment of the foregoing provisions shall be taken as a compliance with the provision in reference to separate colleges for white and colored students.

Morrill then confirmed in an exchange with Hale that the funds would be distributed only to one White and one Black college. As to the distribution of funds itself, the amendment stated simply that a state legislature would propose a “just and equitable division.” Edward Walthall (D-MS) sought to clarify what “just and equitable” meant. Morrill replied that the proportions would be determined by the state legislature. Gibson and Pugh quickly agreed to the amendment.

Several other amendments were then adopted. The most important was proposed by William Chandler, who sought to add the words “or that may be hereafter established” after the word “established” in the following clause: “in which an educational institution of like character has been established and is now aided by such State from its own revenue for the education of colored students in agriculture and the mechanic arts.” The bill was then read a third time and passed. On August 19, the House passed it on a division vote, 135-59. The next day the Senate concurred in the House amendment, and the bill was signed into law shortly thereafter.

In examining Morrill’s last two changes to the bill before the Senate reconvened on June 21, it appears that he made a wholesale concession to Southern Democrats. As Chester W. Wright notes, “The state legislatures were given the authority to divide the funds anyway [sic] they saw fit as long as the money was divided into two parts. The consequence of this was that southern legislatures devised diverse formulas for apportioning the fund between the white and black schools, but no matter what formula was used, black schools did not receive enough money to develop adequately.”[3] On the other hand, if Southern states did not want to integrate their public land-grant colleges, Morrill’s bill – thanks to the Chandler amendment – required them to have a separate “A&M” college for Black students in order to gain access to the annual supplementary Morrill funds. Some states already had such colleges, while others – Georgia, Delaware, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Oklahoma – quickly established them.

In all, seventeen states in which slavery was legal before the Civil War sought funds for segregated colleges. The table below lists the original seventeen Black land-grant colleges (under their current names). These seventeen Black colleges would become known as the “1890 Institutions,” and they would serve a vital role in helping to create a Black middle class in America.[4]

State Founded Initiated      4-Year Program Achieved Regional Accred.
Alabama A&M University AL 1875 1939 1963
Alcorn State University MS 1871 1871 1961
Univ. of Arkansas, Pine Bluff AR 1873 1929 1933
Delaware State University DE 1891 1947 1957
Florida A&M University FL 1887 1909 1949
Fort Valley State University GA 1895 1945 1957
Kentucky State University KY 1886 1929 1939
Langston University OK 1897 1897 1939
Lincoln University MO 1866 1935 1935
Univ. of Maryland, Eastern Shore MD 1886 1936 1953
North Carolina A&T University NC 1891 1925 1936
Prairie View A&M University TX 1876 1901 1958
South Carolina State University SC 1872 1924 1960
Southern University LA 1880 1922 1958
Tennessee State University TN 1909 1922 1946
West Virginia State University WV 1892 1915 1927
Virginia State University VA 1882 1943 1933

This, then, was the deal Morrill struck with the Southern Democrats: money would be provided to public land-grant colleges, and segregation would be respected. In return, Black citizens would be provided with educational resources and, in some cases, colleges that did not previously exist. Clearly there was an understanding that the “just and equitable division” in the South would not be fifty-fifty between Black and White colleges. But for Morrill and his GOP allies, that was the cost of creating this opportunity.

Forty years after the Morrill Act was passed, historian John W. Davis calculated the degree to which states complied with the “just and equal division.” A portion of his table – for the two years spanning 1930-1931 – appears below. Of the seventeen Black land-grant colleges, only three received half of their state’s available funds: Florida, Mississippi (which actually received slightly more than half), and South Carolina. Most of the institutions received less than a third, with Missouri receiving the least (at 6.2 percent).

Institutions Located in From Morrill Act of 1890 Percent of Fund from Act of 1890 Received
Alabama $18,595 43.4
Arkansas 13,636 29.2
Delaware 10,000 20
Florida 25,000 50
Georgia 16,666 33.3
Kentucky 7,250 14.5
Louisiana 19,666 39.3
Maryland 10,000 20
Mississippi 28,272 53.4
Missouri 3,125 6.2
North Carolina 16,500 33
Oklahoma 5,000 10
South Carolina 25,000 50
Tennessee 12,000 24
Texas 12,500 25
Virginia 16,666 33.3
West Virginia 10,000 20

In sum, the Morrill Act of 1890 was a purely distributive program, since all states would be provided with resources from the sale of public lands. The racial element – and Republicans’ desire to provide some aid for Black citizens in the South – meant that deals had to be made covertly, so as to not put members of Congress on the record (and draw constituent attention). As a result, there were no roll calls on any of the amendment or final-passage votes.[5]

The Morrill Act of 1890 would be meaningful in subsequent policy decisions toward the South. For the mechanism that allowed the act to pass was the GOP’s acquiescence to its “separate but equal” provision. Southern Democrats would support distributive policy benefits for all members (and their constituents) only if they could segregate by race. Republicans’ general acceptance of “separate but equal” would effectively “mainstream” this approach, presaging the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson later in the decade. That Court decision would help to solidify and expand Jim Crow throughout the South.


[1] Enacted during the Civil War, the Morrill Act of 1862 provided for the creation of land-grant colleges for each state, using proceeds from the sale of federal (public) lands. The purpose of the land-grant system was “to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the states may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” A map of all land-grant college and universities today can be found at:

[2] $25,000 in 1900 can be worth up to $25.8 million today, depending on the deflator used. In the aforementioned case, the relative share of GDP was used. See

[3] Chester W. Wright, “History of the Black Land-Grant Colleges, 1890-1916” (Ph.D. Dissertation, American University, 1981), 79.

[4] Two more schools would be added to this list over time: Tuskegee University (AL) in 1899 and Central State University (OH) in 2014. Tuskegee’s omission from the 1890 Institutions list is an interesting story, as its trustees were critical to the construction of the Morrill Act of 1890. Chester W. Wright tells the story of this omission: “William H. Council of Alabama A & M, a shaker and mover in Alabama politics, retained enough of his political clout to prevent Alabama from designating Tuskegee as the black land-grant college of the state even though Tuskegee and its friends in Congress were responsible for the final form of the Second Morrill Act in reference to the black land-grant institutions.” See Wright, “History of the Black Land-Grant Colleges,” 101-02.

[5] The issue of public cover and roll-call voting would come up indirectly on the first day of the debate. After Morrill introduced his amendment and secured the no-discrimination amendment, he sought to move the measure forward immediately. At that point Arthur Pue Gorman (D-MD) offered these remarks: “It is perfectly well known that a great many Senators look to other public business on Saturday, when they know that the rule has been that we would proceed only with unobjected cases on the Calendar. I think it is manifestly unfair to them to take up a bill of this kind. . . . I shall therefore be compelled to call for the yeas and nays on this vote, and I shall not regard it as a test vote upon the merits of the bill, but a vote in the negative being simply to adhere to the rule which has prevailed for the past six weeks or two months of this body. I trust the Senator from Vermont will not insist upon his motion and compel us to resort to the yeas and nays.” And Morrill did not insist, agreeing instead to postpone further consideration of his bill, since Gorman’s remarks implied that a roll-call majority did not exist. Only by operating outside the yeas and nays could the bill secure passage.


  • Jeff Jenkins

    Jeffery A. Jenkins is Provost Professor of Public Policy, Political Science, and Law, Maria B. Crutcher Professor of Citizenship and Democratic Values, and Director of the Political Institutions and Political Economy (PIPE) Collaborative at the University of Southern California. He is the founding editor of the Journal of Political Institutions and Political Economy (JPIPE) and the Journal of Historical Political Economy (JHPE). He was the Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Politics for six years (2015-2020).

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