How Alcorn became Alcorn

By Earnest McBride

JA Contributing Editor

Alcorn State University, founded in 1871, emerged out of the bloodiest conflict ever witnessed by the United States. Without the Civil War and the Union victory, there would be no Alcorn State University as it is known today. Yet, even before the idea of Alcorn ever emerged and nearly a decade before the Civil War began, the site where it is located in Lorman, Mississippi, had been a storm center of antislavery activity.It may have been pre-ordained by fate, or it might have been sheer accident that the two men who gave birth to Alcorn would have been of such distinct racial and social backgrounds, while holding similar political and philosophical temperaments, but yet would find their lives intersecting at so many points during one of the most turbulent times in American history. Hiram R. Revels, a black man, was born free in Fayetteville, North Carolina in 1822. James Lusk Alcorn, a white man, was born in a free state—Illinois—in 1816, but made a career as a lawyer, politician and slave-owning planter in Kentucky and Mississippi. Revels trained for the Methodist (A.M.E.) ministry at Galesburg, IL, 350 miles away from Alcorn’s hometown of Golconda. Both played active roles in the Civil War, though on opposite sides. Revels was a chaplain and recruiter in the Union Army and Alcorn was a general in the Mississippi militia, but was never given an official commission in the Confederate Army under Jefferson Davis, Alcorn’s political rival from earlier times.In quest of a public black collegeFollowing Mississippi’s Black and Tan constitutional convention of 1868, where black state legislators pushed for and gained top priority for free public education and the right to vote for all adult black males, Revels, who was a member of the state senate for a little over a year in1869-1870, commanded the respect and trust of black and white members of the state government. His colleagues elected him to serve out the final year of Jefferson Davis’ term in the U. S. Senate. And after the death of black Secretary of State James S. Lynch (not to be confused with Speaker of the House and Congressman John R. Lynch) in 1872, Revels was persuaded to serve a year as Lynch’s replacement until the elections of 1873 brought Jim Hill to the office in 1874.Alcorn, in contrast, was not well-liked by either his former Confederate peers or his new Republican allies from the North. Because he pushed for immediate reconciliation with the United States, Alcorn gained the political support, if not the full trust, of Mississippi’s black and white Republican majority. Labeled a “scalawag” by the Old-South Democrats, Alcorn nevertheless took office as governor in March 1870 and was elected by the state legislature to take over the new full senate term from Revels in March 1871. Once again, the irony of fate was at play in that Alcorn was now taking the seat held by his former political enemy Jefferson Davis, who had defeated him in a run for Congress in 1857.Black colleges were already in existence before the Civil War (Wilberforce was founded in1856; Oberlin University welcomed black students as well as whites), and nearly all the key leaders of the anti-slavery movement knew that education for black men and women would be crucial if and when freedom came. The emphasis lay in two areas, teacher training and the development of skills for black men to fit into both an advanced agricultural and emerging industrial society. The Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 specifically promoted federal support and allocated the land and other resources necessary for training in agriculture, science and engineering.The late Rev. George Sewell, one of the key figures in the history of the university’s emergence into the modern era, gave both Alcorn and Revels a great amount of praise for their determination to establish a black state college that would be competitive with the top white schools already established in Mississippi, particularly the University of Mississippi, Alcorn, as governor, insisted that three-fifths of the bond money allocated for construction should be used for Alcorn, while two fifths would go to Ole Miss. Following Alcorn’s urging before the state legislature, annual financing for the administration of Alcorn and Ole Miss would also be equal, at $50,000 each. Even the name chosen for the college when it was first under consideration could just as easily have been that of Senator Revels, according to Sewell. But Revels himself appreciated the fact that Alcorn had specifically asked him to come back to Mississippi after his one-year Senate term and to assume the presidency of the new college. So Revels led the way in naming the school for the governor.Alcorn’s stormy pre-historyWhy was Alcorn located at Lorman? Hardly any reference is ever made to the character of Oakland College, the pre-Civil War white academy where Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College was established. Oakland College, an all-white, Presbyterian church-run institution in slavery-dominated southeast-central Mississippi, was nevertheless a hotbed of anti-slavery activity. Founded in 1830 by the Reverend Jeremiah Chamberlain, the campus witnessed its founder’s assassination in 1857 because of his outspoken attitude against slavery. Thus its uncommon notoriety before the war led to its closing at the outbreak of the armed conflict in April, 1861. Port Gibson’s Chamberlain-Hunt Academy, founded in 1875, was named partially in honor of the Reverend Chamberlain.The isolation of Alcorn from the larger towns of Vicksburg and Natchez offered it a measure of insulation from the bloody assaults and murders that were later staged across Mississippi in the attempt to overthrow so-called “Black Reconstruction.” Since the college was nearly wholly dependent on the state government for its operating funds, Alcorn was forced to hire administrators who would prove accommodating to even the most vile racist political leaders in Jackson, although hardly anyone on the campus believed in this doctrine of white superiority.The Mississippi Plan that was in development in the years 1875-1885 had a simplistic, two-pronged goal: (1) Run the Northern white Republicans out of all political offices and positions of influence; and (2) convince black Mississippians that white people were inherently superior to blacks and all other races and that they were to be acknowledged as such by whatever means necessary. The history of lynching in the United States, with Mississippi being the most notorious in this activity, served to drive the point home.Growing with modern times.Although the university’s namesake, James Lusk Alcorn, eventually became more closely identified with Mississippi’s white reactionaries as the 20th Century began, the college-university and the people who provided its lifeblood and intellectual sustenance forged a number of historical milestones nonetheless.William Grant Still, Sr., father of Mississippi’s most famous black composer, founded the first band at Alcorn before going on to Alabama State University and then returning home to Woodville where he organized bands in many small towns along the Gulf Coast. Novelist Chester Himes, whose parents were both professors at Alcorn, practically grew up on Alcorn’s campus. Author Alex Haley, whose father was a professor and administrator at Cornell and another HBCU in Tennessee, was a proud alumnus of Alcorn. Closer to the modern era, Alcornite Jack Spinks was the first black Mississippian drafted by the NFL. Mississippi’s first female Olympic Gold Medalist (Summer 1968), Mildred Netter, graduated from Alcorn in 1972. And no one will ever forget the great excitement that the late Steve “Air” McNair brought to every football stadium he visited and captivated the spirit of football fans nationwide during his all-too brief career with the NFL. Leslie Frazier got worldwide publicity last year as he took over as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings.Yet the most stellar achievement of an Alcorn graduate rests with Kimberly Nicole Morgan, Miss Alcorn 2004-05, who went on to win the Miss Mississippi crown in 2007, exactly 20 years after Toni Seawright became the first black woman to gain such a distinction in the state’s history. Both competed in the Miss America pageant of the year following their coronation.Alcorn has greatly benefited from the Ayers lawsuit that granted more than a half-billion dollars in compensation to Mississippi’s three black universities because throughout history they had been flatly denied the funds and resources needed to provide education and training on a par with the major white universities in the state. Since the final court hearing in 2003-2004, the once old and outdated campus at Alcorn, along with those of her sister campuses at Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State, has been transformed into truly modern wonders. And the growth is scheduled to continue.