top of page

The Athens of Arkansas


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.

“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. Two more (Shorter College and Draughon’s Business College), like the Arkansas School for the Blind, moved to Pulaski County.”

William Blakeley built his blacksmith shop and home in 1808 on a bluff overlooking the Ouachita River. Many considered the salt works that was established a few years later on the other side of the river to be the first industry in the Arkansas Territory. A trading post was opened near the boat landing on the river.

“A decade later, Blakeleytown was thriving,” Granade writes. “At the end of the 1830s, the first lots were plotted, and Blakeleytown became Arkadelphia. The name’s originator and precise date of origin are lost. Later accounts agree that early settler James Trigg reported, without attribution, that when Arkadelphia became the county seat and thus needed a more dignified name, locals combined two Greek words for ‘arc of brotherhood’ and changed the third letter. However, many settlers came from Alabama and perhaps borrowed the name of Arkadelphia from a town north of Birmingham.

“In 1842, Arkadelphia became the Clark County seat, and a brick courthouse and jail were completed in 1844. Incorporation was initiated in 1846, though it languished for a decade. In 1850, the first official census counted 162 whites and 86 slaves. By that point, the town included a saloon, the Arkadelphia Male and Female Institute, Methodist and Baptist churches and a newspaper, The Sentinel. A decade later, this town, which served as the market for the surrounding river floodplain farms as well as those smaller upland ones, had the state’s seventh largest population.”

Henderson State University historian David Sesser notes that efforts to open a school began in 1843. An election was held to select three trustees to create a school. One of the 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 Oakland, 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 the female students. By 1852, the school had an enrollment of 97. The school was known by a variety of names during its operations, 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 during the Camden Expedition.”

Stevenson reopened the school after the Civil War. He sold it in 1869 to Mary Connelly, who had once taught there.

“Connelly worked as a teacher in Camden and in other states before the war and moved to Arkadelphia in 1866,” Sesser writes. “She renamed the school Arkadelphia Female College, and the school offered a variety of secondary and college-level courses. Classical language courses and art courses were popular offerings. The students also held concerts at the local Baptist church to raise money to establish a library at the school. Enrollment numbers for the institution do not survive, but numerous girls from the local community attended.

“The organization of Arkadelphia High School by local Republicans as a free institution open to members of the community signaled the end of the private, tuition-driven school. Connelly closed Arkadelphia Female Academy 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 the 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. Otis Patten was the school’s first superintendent. The school was 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 on West Markham Street near the state Capitol in 1939.

“After the Cvil War, the railroad and education changed Arkadelphia,” Granade writes. “The Cairo & Fulton Railroad line, following the Military Road, joined Arkadelphia and Little Rock for the first time in 1873. Once the railroad appeared, short-line spurs spread out into the surrounding pine forests and promoted the growth of sawmills just across the river in what was briefly called Daleville as well as in sawmill towns like Graysonia. Since the railroad touched the river at Arkadelphia, the town became even more of a transportation nexus and therefore a farm market and trading center. Good transportation and education-minded community leadership encouraged another kind of growth in Arkadelphia.”

That was the growth of schools.

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 the 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 was later to become 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. There’s very little known about the next decade in the academy’s history. By 1900, Rev. W.H. Smith was serving as pastor of the West End Church, and his wife was teaching 135 students in the parochial school. They left the academy in 1901.”

The 1904 report of the Missionary and Benevolent Boards and Committees noted that Rev. B.M. Ward was the principal of the school, which had an enrollment of 105 students.

“By 1906, enrollment had dropped to 77 students, but there was a new two-story classroom and administration building, which also served as a boys’ dormitory,” Griffith writes. “Ward left in 1906 and was replaced by Rev. and Mrs. W.D. Feaster. The school was revitalized. By 1908, enrollment had reached 127, and Mrs. Feaster was being assisted by a Miss A. Nelson. A new building was constructed in 1910 at a cost of almost $5,000. By 1913, enrollment had increased to about 300, and there were eight faculty members. When Thomas Jesse Jones visited the academy in 1914 and 1915 in order to prepare a report for the U.S. Department of the Interior, he found an elementary school and only a few students in the secondary grades. Only a small number of these were boarding students.

“Jones’ attendance figures differ significantly from Parker’s figures. Although the school reported an enrollment of 377 students, Jones indicated there were 195 elementary and five secondary school students. He says there were six black teachers — two male and four female — and that four of these teachers did most of the teaching with occasional assistance from the Feasters. In addition to classroom work, some training was offered in sewing and cooking. Some of the boys helped to pay their expenses by working on the farm and the school’s grounds. There was also a small concrete shop where several pupils worked.

“The classrooms and dormitories were furnished with what Jones described as crude furniture. Half of the school’s funding came from the Board of Missions for Freedmen, with the other half coming mostly from the boarding department. Jones valued the plant at $8,300, $3,800 of which was the value of the farm. He suggested that the academy be reorganized to ‘furnish secondary, industrial and teacher training facilities to supplement the training in the county schools.'”

C.W. Black of Malvern, Iowa, contributed $25,000 to the school in 1920. That funded the construction of Black Memorial Hall. A dining room, kitchen and housing for female students were in the new building. The combined administration building and dormitory for boys burned in 1922. It was replaced in 1924, the same year a cottage was built for the principal.

Parker wrote: “Dr. Feaster — industrious, courageous and determined — was successful in guiding the school to a point of respectability, locally and at the national level of the church.”

Feaster died in March 1926. His replacement, Rev. Elmo Hames, died in September of that year. Rev. L.W. Davis then took over. A fire in 1931 destroyed the main building and Black Memorial Hall.

“During this period, the temper of the campus and community was tense and filled with many misgivings,” Parker wrote. “The uncertainty of coming events was too frustrating for the mission to thrive in a town the size of Arkadelphia.”

The Board of Missions decided in 1933 to merge the school with the 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.

“Beginning in 1865, Northern Baptists joined other denominations in the effort to educate the recently freed slaves across the South,” Griffith writes. “In an article published in The New York Times in 1897, the society’s corresponding secretary, Gen. Thomas J. Morgan, noted that after the Civil War ‘the problem presented itself of the intellectual elevation of 4 million human beings, just emerging from a degrading bondage.’

“During the 32-year period between the end of the war and Morgan’s statements, the Home Mission Society had spent about $3 million, and its more than 30 institutions were providing education for more than 5,000 students, from primary school to colleges and universities. Arkadelphia Baptist Academy at 18th and Caddo streets was organized as Arkansas Industrial College by F.L. Jones on Aug. 15, 1890. In 1892, the college’s name was changed to Arkadelphia Academy, and it became associated with Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock. The academy was originally founded to train workers for church work, and the Bible was the foundation of all coursework.”

There was an enrollment of 92 students by 1892. The next year, the school reported 26 male and 60 female students. There were 26 students preparing to teach and three preparing for the ministry.

“The academy faltered during the next several years as enrollment dropped to 50 by 1899,” Griffith writes. “By 1905, this number had dropped to 26, all but two of whom were female. That year, Samuel P. Nelson, a graduate of Butler College and the University of Chicago, took over leadership of the academy. He remained until 1919. Enrollment rose to 80 by 1913. Thomas Jesse Jones visited the academy for the Interior Department in 1914 and 1915 and described it as ‘an elementary school with some pupils in secondary subjects.’ It was owned by the local Baptist association, and the board of trustees was composed of members of the association.”

Jones said that because of “inadequate support, the work is ineffective. … Some instruction in sewing is provided. … The garden is cultivated but without regard for educational values.”

There were four black teachers, three of whom were female, on a campus valued at $3,200. The 10-acre campus had a frame building in need of repair and some equipment. Jones recommended that the school be moved to “some section of the state where it’s more needed, or combined with one of the larger Baptist schools.”

The school lived on for some time, however.

Griffith writes: “It was still in existence in 1929 when the Daily Tribune and Evening Times of Ames, Iowa, reported that the academy’s football team had defeated the black team from Conway by a score of 156-0. In September 1930, the academy’s main building was destroyed when fire broke out in one of the upper stories. The academy may have still existed in some form in 1940 when it was enumerated in a separate census district in Caddo Township.”

What’s now Shorter College in North Little Rock, an HBCU operated by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, also operated for a time at Arkadelphia.

“Classes were first held at what was known as Bethel Institute in the basement of Bethel AME Church and Ninth and Broadway in Little Rock on Sept. 15, 1886,” Cary Bradburn writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Rising enrollment led to acquisition in 1888 of a two-story frame building at 11th and Gaines streets in Little Rock. In 1891, Bethel relocated to Arkadelphia. The college was renamed in 1892 in honor of Bishop James A. Shorter, who organized the Arkansas Annual Conference of AME churches in 1868. Shorter University was chartered on May 18, 1894.

“In 1896, Shorter purchased land in Argenta, which was then the Eighth Ward of Little Rock. Shorter maintained campuses for a year in both Argenta and Arkadelphia until it moved all operations in 1898 to Argenta (now North Little Rock). Shorter changed its name to Shorter College in 1903.”

Draughon’s, meanwhile, had opened as a business college for white students at Arkadelphia in 1891. The Colored Presbyterian Industrial School opened in 1896 and operated for a short time. The town was thriving.

“Between the mid-1880s and the early 1900s, Arkadelphia acquired public utilities and facilities,” Granade writes. “In 1891, a public telephone system and water mains were introduced. Wilson Water & Light Co. provided electricity. Baseball games, first played in Arkadelphia in 1874, took place after 1887 in a grand 500-seat ballpark. The Arkadelphia Bottling Co. provided portable versions of fountain drinks. A cotton mill and Elk Horn Bank opened in 1884, and Citizens National Bank opened in 1888.

“By the era’s end, the community was a farm market and trading center for the surrounding area, an educational center and even more of a center for light industry, both extractive and manufacturing. Lumber, textile and flour milling replaced salt production, while gunsmithing remained. At the turn of the century, Arkadelphia was home to one of the state’s largest lumber mills (Arkadelphia Lumber Co. at Daleville), as well as one of its first successful large industries, the Arkadelphia Milling Co., which produced flour, meal, livestock feed and staves on an around-the-clock schedule. … A natural gas pipeline was completed in 1911, and the fledgling Arkansas Power & Light Co., which initially connected Arkadelphia and Malvern, took over the local system in 1914.”

Busy U.S. 67 led to a number of gas stations and motels being built.

“Between the public schools and the colleges, education rivaled wood products as the area’s largest employer,” Granade writes.

3 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Woodruff County

The phone rang early one morning back in 2018. On the other end of the line was the man who at the time was chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party, Michael John Gray of Augusta. Even though it was

Romantic Calico Rock

It's Valentine's Day. I began thinking about romantic getaways that Arkansans might not know about and kept coming back to the Calico Riverview Inn at Calico Rock, the subject of my past two newspaper

Mena is for real

Once a month, I write the cover story for the Sunday Perspective section of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. This past Sunday, my story was on Mena and the possibility that it will be the next big thing


bottom of page