OPINION | REX NELSON: A monumental day

We all knew that last month's football game between the University of Arkansas Razorbacks and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Golden Lions at Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium wouldn't be close. The Razorbacks play in the powerful Southeastern Conference of NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision. The Golden Lions are a struggling team from the Football Championship Subdivision.

But anyone with a sense of Arkansas history knew this was about much more than football. Arkansans witnessed a UA football team play an in-state opponent for the first time since 1944. The school broke its 77-year scheduling drought against a historically Black college and sent a message of unity in the process.

UAPB has been underfunded for decades, and its prominent alumni haven't always received the credit they deserve for helping build this state. Give credit to UA athletic director Hunter Yurachek for agreeing to this game. Yurachek, who wasn't raised in Arkansas and thus isn't saddled with past traditions, realizes it's a new day.

I feel sorry for those who can't see past the football field in order to understand the big picture in our state. You know the ones I'm talking about. They're the people who go on social media to claim that playing a game in Little Rock hurts recruiting since prospects can't attend.

If you look at college football rankings, it doesn't appear that playing a game each year in Jacksonville, Fla., has hurt the University of Georgia, or that playing a game each year in Dallas has hurt the University of Oklahoma.

They're the ones who say, "the city of Little Rock should do a better job keeping up War Memorial Stadium," not realizing that the stadium is a state facility and has nothing to do with city government. We've learned, of course, that ignorance of the facts doesn't stop people from making fools of themselves on social media.

To appreciate what a monumental day Oct. 23 was in Arkansas, one must know the history of the two universities.

A former Union officer and Republican Party activist named John Middleton Clayton first began pushing for a university in Arkansas to serve former slaves. Clayton, a Pennsylvania native, moved to Arkansas in 1867 to manage a plantation owned by his older brother Powell.

John Middleton Clayton was elected as a state representative in 1871 and moved to the Arkansas Senate in 1873. He was on the first board of trustees of Arkansas Industrial University, now UA, when it was chartered in 1871.

Clayton helped Pine Bluff secure Branch Normal College, now UAPB. The primary objective was educating former slaves to become teachers.

According to the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas: "Gov. 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 in Pine Bluff because of the town's large Black population and its place as the major economic center in south Arkansas.

"Corbin was subsequently elected as principal at a salary of $1,000 a year. The first class consisted of seven students. During the year, 75 to 80 students were enrolled, but average attendance was 45 to 50 the last three months of the school year. Rumors about high fees and the school being a political experiment made recruitment of students difficult. A policy was developed that allowed two types of students to enroll and attend: beneficiaries and pay students."

Each county judge in the state could appoint 15 beneficiaries to Branch Normal. Students had to commit to teach in Arkansas for at least two years after graduation. Pay students were charged a one-time fee for admission.

The school's first building was a frame house in need of repair. The lumber and furniture ordered for a new building never arrived. The boat carrying the materials to Pine Bluff sank. Corbin was the only faculty member for several years. His request for a full-time paid assistant wasn't granted until 1883. In 1889, the school was given $500 for a library and $500 for one assistant teacher.

In Fayetteville, meanwhile, the school for white students was faring better. Congress passed the Morrill Land Grant Act in 1862, allowing 30,000 acres of public lands to be sold in each state to supply funds for an endowment. The Arkansas act establishing a university was passed in 1869, and the Legislature empowered the board in 1871 to seek a host city. Fayetteville was chosen in October 1871.

A house on the McIlroy farm a mile northwest of downtown was fitted with seats and stoves for the school. Arkansas Industrial University opened Jan. 22, 1872. The student body consisted of seven men and one woman. Books were donated by area residents. Old Main, a 90,000-square-foot structure, opened its doors in 1875 as University Hall.

Down in Pine Bluff, the school for Black students lost a major suporter in Janauary 1889 when Clayton was murdered.

"In 1888, Clayton ran as a Republican candidate for Congress against incumbent Democrat Clifton Breckinridge," writes Arkansas historian Kenneth Barnes. "Clayton lost the election by a margin of 846 votes out of more than 34,000 votes cast. This election was one of the most fraudulent in Arkansas history. In one case in Conway County, four white masked men stormed into a predominately Black voting precinct and stole, at gunpoint, the ballot box that contained a large majority of Clayton votes.

"Losing under such circumstances, Clayton contested the election. He went to Plumerville to investigate. On the evening of Jan. 29, 1889, someone shot through the window of the boarding house where he was staying, killing him instantly. The press in Arkansas and the nation condemned Clayton's murder as a vile political crime. Despite a $5,000 reward, an investigation by Pinkerton detectives and a study by the U.S. House Committee on Elections, no murderer was ever found."

The Morrill Act of 1890 made Branch Normal a land grant institution for Black students. Arkansas was allowed to give eight-elevenths of its land grant money to Arkansas Industrial University and the rest to Branch Normal. The struggle for adequate funding has continued to this day in Pine Bluff.

Back in February, it was announced that the Razorbacks will play Arkansas State University in 2025 at War Memorial Stadium. There will be another UA-UAPB game at the Little Rock stadium in 2024, but there's no chance that matchup will ever be competitive due to scholarship differences. From a football standpoint, it makes sense that UA-ASU be the annual Little Rock game.

The UA and ASU systems are headquartered in Little Rock. UA officials would never agree to play in ASU's 30,000-seat stadium at Jonesboro, and ASU would never agree to play every year in Fayetteville. So let's put the game at 54,000-seat War Memorial Stadium, give 27,000 tickets to each school and split the proceeds. Add a $10-per-ticket surcharge and donate the money to charity.

The key is to think far bigger than football. The game should be on Labor Day weekend each year and serve as the centerpiece of a giant celebration of all things Arkansas. There could be an Arkansas food and wine festival that weekend in Little Rock's River Market District. Throw in a 5K race, a tennis tournament, a golf tournament, a bass fishing tournament on the Arkansas River, a concert after the game, and the largest fireworks show in Arkansas history.

Feature the UAPB band even though the school's football team isn't playing. Call it the Arkansas Homecoming Weekend. And, yes, it needs to be in central Arkansas where people from all parts of the state can easily attend. Board members from the UA and ASU systems must view this as a way to promote their schools.

Just as last month's game did, this will allow us to build Arkansas pride. It will be a way to unite every region of Arkansas at a time when so much divides us. It's high time for the UA and ASU boards, perhaps with a push from the governor, to make it happen.

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

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