The UAPB story began in 1872 with the opening of Arkansas Industrial University (now the University of Arkansas) in the northwest corner of the state. The school was said to be open to all regardless of race, but was the furthest district from the state's black population. However, by the end of 1873, the race issue had ushered in a bill in the state Senate to locate a Branch Normal College of the Normal Department of the Arkansas Industrial University southeast, east or south of Pulaski County, "especially for the convenience and well-being of the poorer classes." In July 1875, Joseph Carter Corbin, a learned black man who had served as state superintendent of instruction and chairman of the Board of Trustees for Arkansas Industrial University (1873-74), was hired by the board's Committee on Branch Normal College to find a suitable location for the school. After finding Pine Bluff to be a suitable location for the college, Corbin was asked to assume the duties of principal.
The UAPB story began in 1872 with the opening of Arkansas Industrial University (now the University of Arkansas) in the northwest corner of the state. The school was said to be open to all regardless of race, but was the furthest district from the state’s black population. However, by the end of 1873, the race issue had ushered in a bill in the state Senate to locate a Branch Normal College of the Normal Department of the Arkansas Industrial University southeast, east or south of Pulaski County, “especially for the convenience and well-being of the poorer classes.” In July 1875, Joseph Carter Corbin, a learned black man who had served as state superintendent of instruction and chairman of the Board of Trustees for Arkansas Industrial University (1873-74), was hired by the board’s Committee on Branch Normal College to find a suitable location for the school. After finding Pine Bluff to be a suitable location for the college, Corbin was asked to assume the duties of principal.
The first location for the Normal School was a one-story frame house built to serve as a barrack and located on the intersection of Lindsey and Sevier streets (now Second Avenue and Oak Street). The school opened on Sept. 27, 1875, with seven students. Corbin described these students as scholastically heterogeneous – one could read very well but not write legibly. Others knew enough mathematics to cipher through ratios and proportions, but were reading at less than first grade level. The students entering Branch Normal College were obviously disadvantaged since they and their parents were just 10 years removed from slavery and “few” if any preparatory schools of had existed prior to this time in the state.
In June 1882, after seven years, Corbin reported with great pride that “The first colored student that ever graduated and received a college degree in the state was graduated from Branch Normal College. Between 1882 and 1895, 10 students would receive the bachelor of arts degree before the reduction of the collegiate program at Branch Normal.
In 1891, the board had accepted the provisions of the second Morrill Act of 1890 and agreed to build agricultural and mechanical departments at the Branch Normal College. It is apparent that by 1902, the board had decided to introduce the Tuskegee system of education at Branch Normal, (scientific farming and associated trades such as woodworking and blacksmithing) which would make the farmer self-sufficient and economically independent. Isaac Fisher, a graduate of Tuskegee institute and a disciple of Booker T. Washington, succeeded Corbin and headed the institution until 1911. W.S. Harris was named superintendent and head of the college. Frederick T. Venegar was named head or principal of the Normal Department and not the entire college.
Succeeding W.S. Harris as superintendent of Branch Normal, Jefferson Ish was the first natural Arkansan to head the institution. Under his administration, a standard high school program and a Home Economics Department were established. The faculty and curriculum were expanded, which laid the foundation for a multi-purpose college. Ish’s most important achievement was in the direction of making the institution a land grant college as contemplated by the 1890 Morrill Act. To do this, he established a strong Agriculture Department for the first time, along with training in allied trades.
Bridging the gap
During the span of its existence, the college has had three name changes, from Branch Normal College to the Arkansas Agricultural Mechanical and Normal School in 1921, to the Arkansas Agricultural Mechanical and Normal College in 1927 and now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, starting in 1972. The institution has survived against great odds, both from within as well as those from outside its walls, to stand today with other universities across the nation as a fully accredited institution of higher education. This institution has survived in part because of strong men of vision and determination such as Joseph C. Corbin, Jefferson Ish, Robert Malone, John Brown Watson, Lawrence A. Davis Sr. and the various individuals who have followed in their footsteps. Each of them has made significant contributions to the development and well-being of the institution. Fifteen individuals have served at the helm of the institution during its history. The late Dr. Lawrence A. Davis Sr., the eighth head, served the longest tenure (30 years) and was viewed as a transitional force in developing the UAPB campus as we know it today.
Dr. John Brown Watson, a graduate of Brown University, was appointed as the first president of Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal (AM&N) College in June 1928, after having served for several years as president of Leland College at Baker, La. During the period prior to Watson assuming the presidency, the college was called the AM&N School, which served as a junior college with a preparatory and elementary schools, and a six week summer session for teachers. Within the first few years of his tenure, Watson succeeded in reinstating the four-year bachelor degree program, moved the college to its present location on University Drive, and reorganized the faculty into standard academic departments and divisions. During 1929, a new site for the college had been purchased; the building began, completed and furnished the same year with Watson, and his faculty and students moving in on Dec. 15. By the end of the 1929-30 school year, Watson had awarded the first two bachelor degrees at the college since 1885.
Watson worked steadily to improve the curriculum and quality of teaching at AM&N and became a dominant force in the progress of the college. He established his reputation as a strong leader and a man of firm convictions, earning the nickname “John Bull” among both faculty and students. A strict disciplinarian, he expected everyone on campus to keep active and usefully occupied. By the time of his death in 1942, AM&N college had reached its greatest height under his administration.
The William E. O’Bryant Bell Tower, constructed in 1947, is known as the rallying point for alumni. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Structures. The tower is also a central focus for the historic quadrangle that is bordered on the east by Caldwell Hall, a 1929 structure that is also on the National Historic Register; on the north by Childress Hall, another National Register property, formerly Watson Memorial Library and currently home to the UAPB Museum and Cultural Center. On the west, the Bell Tower is bordered by the Henderson-Young Hall and on the south by Dawson-Hicks and Caine-Gilleland Halls.
Having served as president of AM&N College for 29 years, Dr. Lawrence A. Davis Sr. became the first chancellor of the newly merged University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in 1972. Davis emphasized the basic mission of the university which was to assist the under-privileged students while not excluding the brightest and most talented students. He insisted that integration, as the law of the land, should be recognized and practiced. During 1972, the enrollment of non-black students increased. AM&N College had an integrated facility long before 1972. Maintaining the mission of the college was foremost on the minds and in the hearts of the students, faculty, and alumni during the merger with the University of Arkansas system. The merger had been vigorously opposed because they feared the traditional role of the college would be destroyed. Davis’ one year tenure as chancellor was beneficial to making the transition from AM&N College to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff as smooth as possible.
Following the resignation of Lawrence A. Davis Sr. during the summer of 1973, Dr. Johnny B. Johnson, a professor of teacher education, served as acting chancellor while a national search was conducted to find an individual to head the institution. On July 1, 1974, Dr. Herman B. Smith Jr. assumed the office of chancellor. He immediately set out to improve the physical appearance of the campus. The upgrading of the campus included construction of new parking lots; the resurfacing of existing parking lots; the renovation of two dormitories, (Childress and Holderness Halls) as classrooms; the renovation of the old library building (now Childress Hall); and the demolition of several campus landmarks including: the old president’s home, the old home economics building, the Arts and Sciences building, Joseph C. Corbin Laboratory School (all constructed in 1929). New buildings were completed with the construction of a new science building (Kountz-Kyle) in 1972; a home economics building (Adair-Greenhouse) and a new administration building in 1977. Smith served the university for almost seven years. Under his leadership, new programs were introduced to the curriculum, a vigorous recruiting drive for students was launched, and the university received increased state funding as well as support from the private sector. In 1975, UAPB obtained $307,000 from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the largest grant ever received from any private source at the time.
Immediately following his resignation in January 1981, James Martin, president of the University of Arkansas System, appointed a committee to oversee the administration and operations of the campus until June 30, 1981, or until a new chancellor could be selected. The members of the committee appointed Dr. Aaron Van Wright, vice chancellor for academic affairs; Dr. Lee Torrence, vice chancellor for student affairs; Benson Otovo, vice chancellor for fiscal affairs; Dr. Sellers J. Parker, research director and administrator for the 1890 Extension Programs; Dr. Lawrence A. Davis Jr., dean of arts and sciences; and Dr. Walter Littlejohn, who served as chairman. It was the second time that the university had been administered by a committee.
In September 1981, Dr. Lloyd V. Hackley was appointed chancellor. As chancellor, Hackley gained state and national recognition as an outspoken proponent of quality educational standards for all students. Accomplishments during his tenure include the re-accreditation of the University by the North Central Association of Colleges and Universities, various academic departments received accreditation from their respective accrediting body including music, The National Association of Schools of Music; Home Economics, the American Home Economics Association; Nursing, the National League of Nursing. The University College was established in 1982.
The $7.5 million Health, Physical Education and Recreation Complex, started under Smith’s administration, was completed in 1984 and $1.5 million was released by the state Legislature for the renovation of Caldwell Hall, the oldest existing campus building which currently houses administrative and student support programs.
Hackley inaugurated the first multi-purpose endowment campaign, and secured state funding for a dormitory complex. He resigned in October 1985 to become chancellor of Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. Following Hackley’s resignation, Dr. Johnny B. Johnson was appointed provost. In August 1986, Dr. Charles A. Walker accepted the position of chancellor. During his tenure, the university was successful in generating phenomenal research funds — ranking the school third among all Arkansas institutions of higher learning in terms of research funds received.
Federal funds were secured for the expansion of the dormitory complex initiated by Hackley, and the renovation of the former ROTC building to house the Center for Multi-purpose Research and Sponsored Programs. Approval was granted for two master’s degree programs in elementary and secondary education in 1991, marking a milestone in the educational offering of UAPB. Following Walker’s resignation during the summer of 1991, Carolyn Blakely served as interim chancellor, becoming the first woman to hold the position.
A Davis at the helm
Through the unanimous choice of the Board of Trustees, Dr. Lawrence A. Davis Jr. was appointed chancellor in November 1991 and immediately embarked on moving the university aggressively to address the challenge of finding new ways to better serve the university’s clientele and to serve a more heterogeneous student body. His first year was filling his cabinet and other key positions, including three vice chancellors, a chief of security, and athletic director. The football program was restored after a two-year ban and a new coaching staff was immediately hired. Within two years the football program was at an all-time high, playing for the national championship of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), Division 1. His administration labored to address as many of the historical concerns as possible while giving impetus to enhancing and advancing the teaching, research, and service functions that the university had performed for more than a century. Davis took control of a college facing a $2.9 million deficit. He labored to stabilize the school’s finances, and raise the morale of the faculty, staff, and students.
Other accomplishments during his administration include a range of projects from financial equilibrium and a $30 million appropriation from the state to upgrade campus facilities to fulfilling the aspiration of contributing to the economic development of Pine Bluff through the establishment of the downtown Business Incubator and Office Complex and recently approved first doctoral degree program in aquaculture/fisheries.
On the eve of his retirement, Lawrence A. Davis Jr. noted UAPB has grown and matured from its humble beginnings in a rented frame building to its present location on University Drive. The institution has grown from a faculty of one to a faculty and staff of over 700. The 18:1 student/faculty ratio makes it possible to maintain a learning environment that fosters a close relationship between students and faculty.
The institution has gone from one building to the current physical plant that maintains 79 buildings situated on 318 acres on the Pine Bluff campus, a research farm of 871 acres in Lonoke and a 200-acre farm in Marianna.
The university also has an extended campus in North Little Rock, offers courses in Gould and Marianna, has research and extension offices in Lonoke, Newport and Lake Village, and collaborations with University of Arkansas campuses at Fayetteville, Little Rock and Monticello, as well as Arakansas State University in Jonesboro, Southeast Arkansas College in Pine Bluff, and Pulaski Tech in North Little Rock and Philander Smith College in Little Rock.
The university points with pride to a reinvigorated theater program, nationally recognized Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Academy; championship athletic programs, diverse student population, competitive degree offerings and respected faculty.
UAPB ranks fifth in research funding among other institutions in Arkansas and has on-going research in several fields including nanotechnology, biomedicine, agriculture, aquaculture, biotechnology, nutrition and water and farm management. UAPB is one of five member institutions of the Arkansas Research Alliance, a public-private partnership seeking to build a strong bridge to the 21st century global and knowledge-based economy. As a land-grant institution, the ultimate goal is to assist America in building a society that will accommodate racial, ethnic, and cultural pluralism in a manner that will enhance the quality of lives, of patterns of living, and weld the nation into one people.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Historical markers on the UAPB campus and in the city of Pine Bluff trace the historical development of the university.
Chartered as Branch Normal College of the Arkansas Industrial University in 1873, the school opened at Second Avenue and Oak Street in 1875 and relocated to two subsequent sites in later years to accommodate the needs of faculty and staff at the growing university.
The marker trail throughout the city of Pine Bluff is designed to educate residents and tourists on the historical impact the university has had on the city.
Each marker chronicles the physical history of the university. A Branch Normal College/AM&N School historical marker will be placed at the corner of Third Avenue and University Drive. This was the second site the school relocated to while under the administration of Joseph Corbin. Another marker will be placed at the university’s third location at the intersection of University Drive and Martin Luther King Jr. The campus moved to this site while under the leadership of John Brown Watson. The last marker reflecting the university’s merger with the University of Arkansas System will be placed at Fluker Street and University Drive near the campus Welcome Center.
A historical marker identifying the original campus location at Second and Oak was previously installed. However, plans call for restoring the latter marker from the wear and tear it has endured over the years.)
• Is there no balm in Gilead?’ revisited
• Davis welcomes Michelle Obama to Pine Bluff
• Chancellor’s tree symbolizes growth
• Timeline of Chancellor Davis’ time at UAPB