When I was growing up at Arkadelphia, the Southern Standard newspaper proclaimed on its masthead that the city was the Athens of Arkansas. I always took pride in that moniker. As south Arkansas loses population these days, it's primarily the college towns that are holding their own.
"Arkadelphia's greatest asset has been an enduring commitment to education that began with general private and denominational efforts, as well as the Arkansas School for the Blind prior to the Civil War, and blossomed with public education, a business college and denominational colleges for Black and white Arkansans in the 1880s and 1890s," writes Ouachita Baptist University historian Ray Granade. "Of the five colleges founded in Arkadelphia in the decade between 1885 and 1895, two (Henderson State University and Ouachita Baptist University) continue to operate."
Shorter College and Draughon's Business College started in Arkadelphia before moving to Pulaski County.
Henderson historian David Sesser notes that efforts to open a school in the growing town along the Ouachita River began in 1843. An election was held to select three trustees. One of those trustees died before taking office, and progress stalled.
"A Baptist minister, Samuel Stevenson, arrived in Arkadelphia as a representative of the American Bible Society," Sesser writes. "Stevenson was a native of Philadelphia and a graduate of Georgetown College in Kentucky. Arriving in Clark County around 1848, he first operated a school at Oaklawn, eight miles from Arkadelphia. He constructed a two-story frame building with a cupola and opened the Arkadelphia Institute in 1850 with help from his nephew, James Gilkey.
"Gilkey served as the principal for male students, and Elizabeth Ann Webb took a similar role over female students. By 1852, the school had an enrollment of 97. The school was known by a variety of names, including Arkadelphia Institute, Arkansas Male and Female Institute and Arkadelphia Female Seminary. With the start of the Civil War, the school continued to operate for a time but soon closed. Federal troops ransacked the building during their brief occupation of Arkadelphia."
Stevenson reopened the school after the war. He sold it in 1869 to Mary Connelly, who had once taught there. She renamed it Arkadelphia Female College.
"The organization of Arkadelphia High School by local Republicans as a free institution signaled the end of the private, tuition-driven school," Sesser writes. "Connelly closed it in June 1874. The building was later used to house Arkadelphia Female High School, which was organized along with Arkadelphia Male High School in 1875."
What's now Arkansas School for the Blind at Little Rock was organized at Arkadelphia by a blind Baptist minister in 1859. The Institute for the Education of the Blind campus was along the Ouachita River where Ouachita's campus is now located. The school moved to Little Rock in 1868. The first Little Rock campus was at 1800 Center St. The institute was renamed Arkansas School for the Blind in 1877 and moved to its current campus near the state Capitol in 1939.
Additional schools were formed at Arkadelphia after the Civil War. Arkadelphia Presbyterian Academy was a co-educational elementary and secondary school for Black children operated by the Presbyterian Board of Missions for Freedmen, part of what typically was known as the Northern Presbyterian Church.
"The board began opening schools for freed slaves as early as the 1860s, but the movement arrived late in Arkansas," Nancy Snell Griffith writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "It wasn't until 1889, when a new presbytery was organized in the state and large numbers of Blacks from Eastern states were settling in Arkansas, that the board felt confident to begin its work there.
"The academy in Arkadelphia had earlier roots, however. According to historian Inez Moore Parker, it was founded by an unknown man who in 1882 began teaching Black children under a tree on what later became the school's campus. The academy was operated independently until it was taken under care by the Board of Missions for Freedmen in 1889. At that time, the board purchased 38 acres, including a frame building, to house the institution."
The Board of Missions decided in 1933 to merge the school with Cotton Plant Academy in Woodruff County.
There was also a Baptist school for Black students at Arkadelphia. Arkadelphia Baptist Academy was founded by the American Baptist Home Mission Society of New York as Arkansas Industrial College in August 1890. In 1892, the name was changed to Arkadelphia Academy, and the school became associated with Little Rock's Arkansas Baptist College. The Arkadelphia school existed in some form until the 1930s.
What's now Shorter College in North Little Rock, an HBCU operated by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, also existed for a time at Arkadelphia. What had begun as Bethel Institute in Little Rock relocated to Arkadelphia in 1891. The college was renamed in 1892 to honor the man who organized the Arkansas AME conference, Bishop James Shorter. In 1896, the school purchased land in North Little Rock. It maintained campuses both there and in Arkadelphia for a time before moving all operations to central Arkansas in 1898.
Draughon's opened as a business college for white students at Arkadelphia in 1891. Meanwhile, the Colored Presbyterian Industrial School, which was for Black students, opened later in the decade and operated for a short time.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.