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OPINION | REX NELSON: City of colleges

by Rex Nelson | March 21, 2021 at 8:35 a.m.

Memories of the Civil War were still vivid in Arkansas in 1876. During the Reconstruction period following the war, pastors of various denominations worked to establish colleges to train ministers and teachers. At Altus that year, Rev. Isham Lafayette Burrow started Central Institute with 20 students.

During the 1881-82 school year, the name was changed to Central Collegiate Institute. In 1884, with his school running short of funds, Burrow asked the Methodist church for help.

"The following year, the conference raised funds to purchase the school and elected Burrow as president," Katherine Stanick writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "In June 1887, Burrow was replaced by Alexander Copeland Millar. The first four-year degrees had been awarded in 1885.

"On June 10, 1889, the name was changed to Hendrix College, honoring Bishop Eugene Russell Hendrix of Kansas City, who had recently been named presiding bishop of the Arkansas Conference. On March 22, 1890, the board voted to move the college to Conway. The college opened there on Sept. 18, 1890."

It marked the beginning of Conway being known as a college town. These days, Conway and Little Rock are the only cities in the state with three traditional four-year institutions of higher learning. The capital city has the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Philander Smith College and Arkansas Baptist College. Conway has Hendrix, the University of Central Arkansas and Central Baptist College.

The three Conway schools have played a key role in the growth of the city, which is outlined in the cover story of today's Perspective section.

"Millar was replaced at Hendrix in 1902 by Rev. Stonewall Anderson," Stanick writes. "Lacking strong support from the Methodist church and finding few resources in the depression-ridden Southern states, Anderson sought and received financial assistance from the General Education Board of New York, a philanthropic organization founded in 1903 and funded by John D. Rockefeller. Receiving assistance from outside sources broadened the college's orientation and was a continuing source of revenue for years, though it tended to move the college away from strict church-dominated roots.

"On Jan. 10, 1910, Anderson resigned due to his frustration with the church spreading its support among three colleges--Hendrix, Henderson in Arkadelphia and Galloway Women's College in Searcy. Millar returned to the office. The college prospered under his administration, and a number of improvements were made. But Millar resigned over conflicts with the board in 1913."

While Hendrix was trying to find its footing, the Arkansas Legislature in 1907 approved Act 317, which created Arkansas State Normal School to train teachers. Board members were appointed in May of that year. Conway, Russellville, Benton, Fort Smith and Quitman submitted bids to the state for the school. Conway was chosen after offering three tracts of land and $51,753 in cash.

Arkansas State Normal School began operations on Sept. 21, 1908.

"The first president was John James Doyne, formerly state superintendent of schools," writes Jimmy Bryant, who heads state government's Division of Arkansas Heritage. "He served as president until Aug. 31, 1917. The first degree offered was licentiate of instruction. This two-year degree was the equivalent of a professional license. The curriculum for bachelor of arts wasn't created until 1920.

"The school grew rapidly and went from about 100 students in 1908 to 200 students in 1909. Before Doyne left office, enrollment reached 441 students in 1916. Doyne's successor was Burr Walter Torreyson, previously state high school inspector for Arkansas. World War I's impact on the school's enrollment was significant. By the spring of 1918, 302 students were enrolled, and only 12 of them were men."

The student population grew to 871 by 1925.

Down the street, Central College for Women was established in 1892 and operated until the late 1940s. The Arkansas Baptist State Convention had appointed a committee in 1891 to determine if a college for women was needed. The committee purchased land for the school. Central College first operated in a Baptist church until a building on campus was completed. The school received national accreditation from the North Central Association in 1925.

Back at Hendrix, John Hugh Reynolds became president in 1913, the first non-clergyman to hold the job. He served until his retirement in 1945.

"His policy was to provide a good liberal arts education for a small number of carefully selected students," Stanick writes. "In 1914, Hendrix was placed on Columbia University's list of first-class colleges whose students were admitted unconditionally. In 1914, Reynolds initiated the Arkansas Pastors' School at the college, and it became an annual event of the Southern Methodist Church. Hendrix was added to the North Central Association in 1924, and in 1929 was approved by the American Association of Colleges."

Methodist officials decided in 1929 to close the Arkadelphia school and merge it with Hendrix. It was known for a couple of years as Hendrix-Henderson College before going back to just Hendrix. Galloway in Searcy was merged into Hendrix in 1933, leaving Hendrix as the only Methodist college for white students in Arkansas.

While Hendrix remained small and exclusive, the state school at Conway grew. On Feb. 7, 1925, the name was changed from Arkansas State Normal School to Arkansas State Teachers College. By 1930, the campus consisted of five brick and two frame buildings. By the start of U.S. involvement in World War II in late 1941, there were 15 major buildings thanks to President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs.

"The program that most impacted the college was the Public Works Administration, which funded projects by a combination of grants and low-interest loans," Bryant writes. "The first PWA project completed in Arkansas was Wingo Hall at ASTC in October 1934. ... During the war, ASTC became a temporary home to various branches of the armed forces. The Naval Cadets, Army Air Corps, Army National Guard and Women's Army Corps turned the quiet college campus into a veritable military base.

"The WAC had the largest contingent of personnel with 1,800 women being trained from March 1943 until March 1944. So many military personnel were on campus that Gov. Homer Adkins wanted to change the name of the institution to MacArthur Military College. After the war ended, the size of the student body quickly increased to 1,400 by 1947."

Silas Snow became president in July 1953 and served for 22 years. Under his watch, ASTC became State College of Arkansas in January 1967, and then SCA became UCA in January 1975.

Across town, the Central College campus was empty for several years until it was purchased by what's now the Baptist Missionary Association of Arkansas to house Central College for Christian Workers. The college had started as an extension of Jacksonville College of Texas, holding classes at Temple Baptist Church in Little Rock.

The 11-acre Central College for Women property was purchased for $85,000 and the name was changed to Conway Baptist College to avoid confusion with the old Central College for Women. Classes in Conway began in 1952. A decade later, the name was changed to Central Baptist College.

"Central Baptist struggled through its first three decades," Dusty Bender writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "The school competed with local and international missionary efforts for support from the small, struggling denomination. Some felt money should be spent on missions and not a luxury like a college. As a result of persistently low funding, survival seemed precarious."

During the presidency of Charles Attebery from 1990-2004, the financial situation finally stabilized.


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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