This weekend two million students who attend land-grant universities returned from Thanksgiving break. A few short days later will mark the end of Native American Heritage month.

I suspect that most of these students, like I once was until recently, are oblivious to the connection.

A few years ago, I was granted the opportunity and honor to give the commencement address at my alma mater, Penn State University. In preparation, I was connected to one of the university’s historians to help inform my remarks. At one point, I noted that I wanted to include a mention of the school’s status as a land-grant college and needed to better understand its history.

My initial belief was that the land-grant universities were established to democratize higher education. To make it more accessible to the sons (and eventually daughters) of farmers and other members of the working class. The Morrill Act was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln. It was an effort to increase equity of opportunity for a higher education system that previously catered to scions of the upper class.

Most of this is true.

What I didn’t understand, and what was shared by the university’s historian, is how exactly these colleges – which include schools such as Auburn, Clemson, Cornell, Ohio State University, MIT, Michigan State University, University of Delaware, UC-Berkeley, and Wisconsin – were funded.

My naive assumption was that land within the state, in my case Pennsylvania, was granted to the university to build or expand the schools to allow for more students.

This is largely false.

In 1862, the first of three Land Grant acts was passed (two later acts in 1890 and 1997 would fund HBCUs and tribal colleges respectively.)  This first act allocated federal land to states based on the number of senators and representatives each state had.

The number of acres was 30,000 for each. So Idaho received 90,000 acres, while New York received 990,000.

If the federal land was located within your state, like Idaho, all the better. If it was not, the state was given a land scrip. In essence this was an allocation of land from another state that the receiving state could sell – using the proceeds to fund its endowment and building/expansion of its school

This land was taken from Native Americans, largely from the territories of New Mexico and Arizona.

It is, of course, worth noting that most federal land was at one point taken from Native Americans.

Without land-grant colleges which significantly increased educational opportunities, I would not be where I am today. The same is probably true for most of the estimated twenty- million people living today who are graduates of a land-grant college. For this I am grateful.

At the same time, upon learning the history behind land-grant colleges I was conflicted. In a well-intentioned attempt to improve equity according to class, inequitable acts deprived equity according to race.

This is a recurring theme in the history of our country.

It should be accepted without question that certain races have historically been treated abhorrently, discriminated against routinely in almost every imaginable way. Their suffering and treatment has been minimized and marginalized, as if to cruelly rewrite that history.

At the same time, we should accept that cruel treatment and misfortune, while not distributed equally, can befall almost any of us.

The majority of people who are poor in this country are white – like I was growing up. At the same time, certain minority groups remain disproportionately so. Those two facts need not be in conflict with another but often seem to be.

Reconciling historical discrimination and one’s current individual lived experience is, to put it mildly, challenging.

Shortly after learning the history of land-grant colleges, I interviewed former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey for my NPR podcast Attribution, which examines our complicated journeys. We were talking about her memoir, Memorial Drive.  A book whose themes include the reconciliation of our past with our present.

I recounted my land-grant discovery story to Trethewey and her response was both stunning and full of grace. “Isn’t it wonderful that you know that now?”

Indeed it was and is. I didn’t steal land from Native Americans but I have unquestionably benefited from its theft. To understand and accept this fact strengthens my connection to all those that have come before me and perhaps my commitment to help others do the same.

But what of the question of guilt. Should this not be the prevailing feeling?

The Thanksgiving Play by Larissa Fasthorse explores this same dynamic. How do we productively reconcile our historical tragedies and our present circumstances?  In that play, four white people struggle – with some absurdity  – on how to stage a more historically accurate and politically correct elementary school play about our first Thanksgiving, without having any Native American actors.. They tie themselves in knots trying to figure out how to do so to the point of paralysis.

When talking with Fasthorse right after the play debuted on Broadway, I mentioned the history of land-grant universities in the context of her own work. She said,  “We need to get past guilt. We need to get to understanding and recognition…We need to understand that we are culpable. So I want all of that to come across. But then I also want people to not just feel like bashed over the head. Like now, I’m so battered and it hurts so I can’t move forward. We need to move forward together, not separately.

The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities has a Statement of Land Acknowledgment on their website. As do several land-grant universities themselves.

Beyond these passive acknowledgements, perhaps there is more that could be done proactively. Free tuition to all Native American students would be a simple start and modest investment. Also it should be the obligation of every land-grant institution to ensure that every student who steps foot on campus has a better understanding of how that campus came to be sitting there in the first place.

We should teach the history of land-grant colleges not to make students feel guilt or even appreciation – although those would be natural reactions. Rather it is to deepen their connection to their institution and their country with honesty and wonder with the ultimate hope that we can all move forward together.

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