Morrill Justice

Another building outlasts the memory of its honoree

News of recent robberies at Morrill Hall at UT stirred up an old quandary. Morrill Hall is pronounced with an accent on the E.

You don't see the E? Me neither. I know residents of the big dormitory on the west end of campus have more urgent concerns right now, but this has perplexed me for a couple of decades now.

I first wondered about it when I worked on a delivery truck in the UT area in 1977. My colleagues called it "Morrell Hall." The fellows on the loading dock weren't big readers, most of them, and I assumed they just hadn't taken much notice of that I in there.

The guys apparently had influence at the university. Today, nearly everyone pronounces it that way, freshmen and UT administrators and TV reporters alike. Ask the friendly desk clerk how to pronounce it, and she answers, with some authority, "Morrell."

I'm fond of eccentric pronunciations. If your name's Taliaferro, and you pronounce it Tolliver, I'll pronounce it Tolliver too. Families named Ridenour have half a dozen different ways to pronounce their name, and I'll never correct any of them.

If the Morrills wanted to pronounce their named Morrell, I'd go along with that. Nothing wrong with the name Morrell.

The Morrells, after all, have been a distinguished Knoxville family for more than a century. Henry Morrell was rector of St. John's Episcopal in the 1880s. His son Norman Morrell, the "dean of Knoxville attorneys," was a state senator and leading Republican politician in the '20s and '30s. His wife Lucy was an advocate for the blind and a nationally noted Braille transcriber. I assume that Morrell Road, now much busier than it's ever been, is named in their honor.

However, the residence hall at UT is not.

UT's first Morrill Hall, built in 1880, was an ivy-covered brick building on the side of the Hill, which once housed the state's Agricultural Experiment Station. It eventually burned, as did a second Morrill Hall.

The third Morrill Hall, much bigger than the first two, rose on an expanding campus in 1968.

A dozen or more stories with plain vertical lines, Morrill Hall is not a pretty building; it looks a lot like most other institutional high-rises built in 1968. It serves the purpose of housing undergraduates, and no other.

Justin Smith Morrill, whom the building honors with its name, was not a UT president, nor a benefactor, nor a member of the Board of Trustees. He didn't attend UT; in fact he never attended any college. It's unclear whether, in his long life, he ever visited the state of Tennessee.

Morrill was a sideburn Yankee politician from Vermont. Whether he was ever here or not, he and his politics have a great deal to do with the fact that the university's here in Knoxville and not in, say, Nashville or Murfreesboro.

In the 1850s, U.S. Congressman Morrill supported a bill to grant each state in the Union thousands of acres of federally owned Western land—for the purpose of funding collegiate education in the practical sciences: specifically, engineering, agriculture, and military science. Up until then, UT, or East Tennessee University, as it was known, was mainly a classical liberal-arts college with little vocational training.

The Morrill Bill took on strategic overtones when it was seen as a way to reward loyal states and punish the rebels. In 1862, a Congress largely weeded of Southern Democrats passed the Morrill Act. During the war and for a long time afterward, it amounted to a federal subsidy for higher education in the North. The disloyal Southern states wouldn't qualify for the federal boon until long after the war.

However, partly due to the efforts of the oft-maligned Reconstruction Gov. "Parson" Brownlow, in 1867 Congress allowed an exception to be made for the divided state of Tennessee, treating it as if it were a Northern state.

After some bitter arguments in Nashville, East Tennessee University in Knoxville, Brownlow's hometown and a hotbed of Republican politicians, got the Morrill designation. Ever since then, Knoxville's university has been Tennessee's Land Grant institution. In 1879, when it came time to designate a "University of Tennessee," the well-funded Morrill Act campus in Knoxville was the obvious choice. Knoxville has a huge state university today thanks to radical Republican politics of the Reconstruction era.

Trustees never named a building for Parson Brownlow. But they were so grateful to the Morrill Act that, in 1880, they named the first Morrill Hall.

I don't know whether Sen. Morrill ever saw it; he was 88 when he died in office, in 1898. Today, he's on a 55-cent U.S. postage stamp, and there are Morrill Halls at public universities from coast to coast—though there appear to be many more of them in the North than in the South.

I couldn't find any actual Morrills in Knoxville. I'm not sure anybody by that name has ever lived here. However, through the electronic grapevine I got in touch with Robert "Wes" Morrill, who's a county benefits analyst in Monterey, California. He's Sen. Morrill's great-great nephew. He says he's heard the "Morrell" mispronunciation before. When he was a kid, he says, his pals would assume he was connected to the Morrell Meat Co., which made hot dogs.

But it's not his name. The way to pronounce it, he says, is with the accent on the first syllable: like "moral," he says.