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The Fascinating History of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff

Updated: Aug 14, 2023

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is first in our September series highlighting the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and several notable faculty and alumni.

The story of UAPB started back in 1873, when State Senator John Middleton Clayton sponsored a legislative act calling for the establishment of Branch Normal College. As a “normal” college, its primary objective was educating black students to become teachers for the state’s black schools.

Governor Augustus Hill Garland, Arkansas Industrial University board chairman D. E. Jones, and Professor Wood Thompson hired Joseph Carter Corbin in July 1875 to make a determination about locating Branch Normal College in Pine Bluff because of the town’s large black population and its place as the major economic center in south-central Arkansas. Corbin was eventually offered the principal role at a salary of $1,000 per year.

Things didn’t go smoothly for the fledgling university. Several setbacks delayed the opening of the school. One involved the structure selected for the new Normal School, a one-story frame house on the corner of Lindsey and Sevier streets (now Second Avenue and Oak Street). Repairs were badly needed, but work was delayed because of illness among the workers. Lumber and furniture were ordered for the new building, but the boat carrying them sank in the river.

Branch Normal College finally opened on September 27, 1875. The first class was small by today’s standards, with just seven students. Corbin described these students as scholastically heterogeneous—a kind euphemism for young people facing so many obstacles. They and their parents were just ten years removed from slavery. Almost no preparatory schools had existed prior to this time in Arkansas. For example, one student could read very well but not write legibly. Others knew enough mathematics to cipher through ratio and proportion but were reading at less than first grade level.

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.” That same year, Corbin and his students moved to a new structure, a 20-acre plot on the west side of the city between West Second and Fourth Avenues. Between 1882 and 1895, ten students would receive the Bachelor of Arts degree.

In 1890, Branch Normal was designated as a land-grant college under the 1890 federal amendments to Morrill Land-Grant Acts. As Congress had originally established the land grant colleges to provide education to all qualified students in a state, in 1890 it required states maintaining segregated systems to establish a separate land-grant university for blacks as well as whites.

In 1902, Isaac Fisher, a graduate of Tuskegee Institute and a disciple of Booker T. Washington, was tapped to head Branch Normal College. He remained in that role until 1911. In 1927, the school severed its ties with the University of Arkansas and became Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College (Arkansas AM&N). Two years later, the school moved to its current site and eight new buildings were constructed. The university’s defining landmark, the W.E. O’Bryant Bell Tower was built in 1947.

The next twenty years were a time of unprecedented growth for the university as new facilities were built to accommodate students, faculty, and staff. The L. A. Davis, Sr. Student Union, Hazzard Gymnasium, Woodard Hall, Larrison Hall, the infirmary, two dormitories, the library, and the Hathaway Howard Fine Arts Center were all built during this period.

In 1972, Arkansas AM&N re-joined what is now the University of Arkansas System. As a full-fledged campus with graduate study departments, it gained its current name and university status in the process. Today, UAPB is recognized as a leading research institution in aquaculture studies, offering Arkansas’ only comprehensive curriculum in this field, including an Aquaculture/Fisheries PhD program.

The University Museum and Cultural Center on the campus of UAPB contains photographs, catalogs, yearbooks, letters, artifacts, portraits, and other ephemera that document the lives and culture of African Americans who helped shaped the history of UAPB and the Arkansas Delta. Established in 2005, it is the only museum of its kind in Arkansas. If you want to learn more about the fascinating history of UAPB, the University Museum and Cultural Center is the place to start.

Sources: University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB), Wikipedia

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