USU celebrates land-grant legislation on Founders Day

USU celebrated the democratization of knowledge through land-grant universities Friday at the 2012 Founders Day banquet. The Morrill Act, which will turn 150 in July, established the land-grant program, which would give federally controlled land to states for the development of low-cost universities.”In 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act into law, and the lives of people in America changed forever,” said Mary Sias, the president of Kentucky State University and Founders Day’s featured guest. “The act was really about access.”At the time of the Morrill Act, higher education was only an elite enterprise, Sias said, and most of the students were white, wealthy males. In 1870, of the 63,000 students enrolled in college, women made 21 percent. Only 1 percent of the entire college-age population was getting higher education, she said.”The Morrill Act knocked down those barriers,” Sias said.Sias spoke to a sold-out crowd of students, staff, faculty and alumni of the impact land-grant schools have had in her life.Sias attended elementary school in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1950s. For the first three years of her public education, she was only able to attend a half-day of school, because the school for African-Americans in Jackson wasn’t big enough for students to all attend a full day. The schools were lacking in other areas, as well, she said. The books used were leftovers from the white schools, and often parts were missing.Sias attended college because at a time of intense racial segregation, her parents wanted a better life for their children.”I remember going with them to try to vote. And they had poll taxes, and they had literacy tests,” Sias said. “I remember the many times they were turned away, and I remember the discussions in the car about how important it was to them to have a right vote, because they wanted a better life for their three children.”Her parents weren’t college graduates themselves, and only had an eighth-grade education, she said.”It wasn’t because they weren’t smart enough,” Sias said. “In fact, they were very smart. But in Mississippi, your public education stopped at the eighth grade if you were black.”When she went on to receive a higher education, she didn’t realize she was breaking racial boundaries, she said.

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