As the first of the University of California schools, UC Berkeley’s history began when the UC system’s history did — 150 years ago today.
The UC was chartered on March 23, 1868 when California Gov. Henry Haight signed the Organic Act, which created California’s first land-grant university, according to the UC archival records. The road to Charter Day — now a day that commemorates the creation of the UC and its history — was paved years before this, however, with a little help from none other than President Abraham Lincoln.
In 1862, during the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which provided states with funding to create public universities. UC Berkeley forestry and wildlife biology Professor Emeritus Reginald Barrett said his great-great-grandfather, Jonathan Baldwin Turner, personally worked alongside Lincoln and was one of the first leaders in the movement toward legislation for free public universities.
“(Turner) believed that democracy couldn’t be sustained unless a substantial portion of the population was educated,” Barrett said. “He wanted to make sure that anybody would be able to get an education and further society because of it.”
Using the funds granted by the Morrill Act, California established the Agricultural, Mining and Mechanical Arts College in 1866, but this new public college did not yet have an official campus. It just so happened that the College of California, located in what is now the city of Berkeley, had a campus but limited funds.
The College of California offered its buildings to the state for the Agricultural, Mining and Mechanical Arts College to be built in 1867, on the condition that a “complete university” be established to teach the humanities alongside the other disciplines. Once the state legislature accepted this condition, the Organic Act was signed and the UC system was born.
As demand for university education in California grew, the UC expanded to other cities including Los Angeles in 1881, where the Los Angeles branch of the State Normal School — which would later become UCLA — was founded.
Charter Day was not celebrated until 1874, when former UC president Daniel Coit Gilman declared Charter Day a university holiday. On the first Charter Day celebration, Colt held a student contest and donated a prize of $50, which was won by class of 1875 alumnus Josiah Royce.
After its inauguration, Charter Day became a student-led event for 17 years.
“A program of student oratory, poetry and musical performance, concluded by an address from a faculty member, filled the morning; the afternoon was devoted to dancing,” according to the Online Archive of California.
In 1892, former acting UC president Martin Kellogg decided that Charter Day warranted a formal academic ceremony. In commemoration of the occasion, he conducted a university meeting during which Charles W. Eliot, former president of Harvard University, gave the main address. This instituted a tradition of featuring a noted speaker from outside the UC as the main attraction of each annual celebration.
Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy are among the most notable speakers who have addressed students, faculty and alumni at Charter Day celebrations.
Kennedy’s address in 1962 was held in Memorial Stadium, where he spoke to the largest crowd he had ever addressed — approximately 88,000 people. He was given an honorary degree following his visit, according to Associate University Archivist Kathryn Neal.
“I know the University of California will continue to grow as an intellectual center because your presidents, your chancellors and your professors have rigorously defended that unhampered freedom of discussion and inquiry which is the heart of the intellectual enterprise and the soul of the free university,” Kennedy said in his address.
It has been a long tradition, too, for alumni to return to UC Berkeley on Charter Day and parade through campus with their respective graduating classes while holding their class banners, according to UC Office of the President executive director of alumni and constituent affairs John Valva.
“The sense of pride, happiness and inward cheer that alumni from many years have is really inspiring to me,” Valva said. “It’s a reminder that these are hallowed grounds on campus that people have walked for generations.”