How Abraham Lincoln Started HBCUs, At Least Indirectly

By David J. Kent

Washington D.C.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Abraham Lincoln is responsible for the creation of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). At least indirectly.

In early July 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Land-Grant College Act. His predecessor James Buchanan had vetoed the idea in 1859, but with Lincoln’s encouragement, Senator Justin Morrill reintroduced it for easy congressional passage and Lincoln’s welcome signature. The Act donated federal land to the states, which could sell them to establish a permanent endowment to fund public colleges. The Act required these colleges to teach “scientific and classical studies” and to “promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes” in agricultural and the mechanical arts. Iowa quickly accepted the provisions of the Act and designated its existing Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) as the first official land-grant college. The first new institution created under the Act was Kansas State University. Isaac Funk, a close friend of Lincoln’s, founded the first land-grant college in Illinois. Others soon followed, including many in the South to aid its post-war rejuvenation.

So where do HBCUs fit into this? Because of discrimination against African-Americans in the former slave-owning states, a second Morrill Land-Grant Act was passed in 1890 requiring either the state demonstrate race was not an admissions criterion or they must designate a separate land-grant institution for persons of color. Many states chose the latter, which while discriminatory, did result in the creation of several HBCUs. In 1994 the land-grant status was extended to tribal colleges and universities, and today there are 106 land-grant colleges.

The importance of these land-grant colleges cannot be overstated.

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