Ask most college students — even history majors — about the Morrill Act of 1890 and a blank stare is the likely response. Southern University is making an effort to increase appreciation of this 125-year-old legislation.

After all, Southern wouldn’t be the same place without it.

Coming just 10 years after Southern was founded, the law expanded the concept of land-grant colleges to states that had been part of the Confederacy when the 1862 Morrill Act was passed. It was part of an emphasis on expanding research and training in agriculture, mechanical studies and military programs.

Because the 1890 law required admissions to be either race-neutral or that separate institutions be established for African-Americans, Southern became Louisiana’s land-grant counterpart to LSU.

“All institutions have three functions — research, teaching and public service — but we get federal funds, state funds and local funds to carry out the land-grant function,” said Adell Brown, vice chancellor for research at Southern’s Agricultural Research and Extension Center. “As it has evolved over time, the land grant has dealt primarily with making certain that agriculture, family and consumer science, that piece of society is managed. It started with most of us living on farms, and agriculture remains a major driver for economic development even today.”

Until segregation rules in the South began breaking down in the 1960s, that left the school’s participation in Cooperative Extension directed exclusively toward the state’s black farmers and families. Black Extension agents — including Leodrey Williams, now the SU Ag Center’s chancellor — were hired by LSU but headquartered at Southern until 1965, carrying out the role of providing advice to farmers and home economic tips to their wives.

“When I was growing up, my vocational agriculture teacher also during the summer subbed as an Extension worker,” Brown said. “One of the beauties of becoming a vocational agriculture teacher was you got 12 months when everybody else got nine months because your job was to work with the farmers. So, Southern always had a connection through the vocational agriculture program with all the communities out in the state.”

Federal funding for Southern’s land grant mission increased significantly with the congressional passage of a 1977 farm bill, Brown said, which greatly increased its research and Cooperative Extension, sending agents to 30 parishes.

The Southern University Ag Center was created in 2001, creating the hub around which the activities operate.

In 2005, Southern and LSU came to an agreement on which roles the two land-grant schools should take, Brown said. For Southern, that role is alleviating poverty. Some of that involves the longstanding tasks of bringing information to low-income farmers and families. Southern has established the Southwest Center for Rural Initiatives in Opelousas to coordinate its work in St. Landry, Lafayette, Vermilion, Acadia, St. Martin, Pointe Coupee, Avoyelles, Beauregard, Allen and Evangeline parishes, which have high poverty levels.

“It’s bringing individuals within a parish — governmental, nongovernmental — and getting them to work together and plan, to talk to each other,” said Gina Eubanks, vice chancellor for Extension.

The mission extends to the academic side of the university. The College of Agricultural, Family and Consumer Sciences includes doctoral studies in urban forestry and natural resources, which covers a lot more than trees.

The program also looks at solutions to food deserts, urban areas with little to no grocery stores that offer healthy food options.

“The name might appear very limiting, but it’s a broad area,” said Doze Butler, the college’s associate dean.

The scope of all this could not have been imagined when the second Morrill Act was passed, so the university is highlighting it at a variety of events.

“Not only are we relevant, but we’re constantly evolving to ensure our continued high state of relevance,” Brown said. “We’re working off a strategic plan that sets a vision and keeps us moving forward.”

“This is just the first 125 years,” Butler said.