top of page

The rival colleges


Only three cities in Arkansas — Little Rock, Conway and Arkadelphia — have multiple four-year institutions of higher learning.

Little Rock now has more than 200,000 residents. Conway now has more than 65,000 residents. Arkadelphia has fewer than 11,000 residents.

In that sense, Arkadelphia is the closest thing we have in Arkansas to a true college town — a place where colleges dominate the economy and every other aspect of the town. What are now Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University began as Baptist and Methodist schools, respectively.

Ouachita was founded on April 8, 1886.

Henderson began in 1890 as Arkadelphia Methodist College.

“Samuel Stevenson and James Gilkey established the first in a string of Baptist schools in Arkadelphia,” writes Ouachita historian Ray Granade. “It and what’s now the Arkansas School for the Blind preceded the Civil War, followed by the Arkadelphia Baptist High School (later Red River Baptist Academy). Ouachita Baptist College was the first of four institutions of higher education (two for whites and two for blacks) begun between 1886 and 1896 in a town that locals liked to promote as the Athens of Arkansas and the City of Colleges.

“OBC was advertised as an institution created not ‘as a financial speculation, but solely upon an educational basis.’ Free tuition for all ministers ‘irrespective of denomination’ (until 1937), a tuition waiver for ministers’ children and another for siblings simultaneously at school exacerbated the financial situation and led one historian to estimate that more than a third of OBC students between 1886 and 1933 paid no tuition at all.”

Residents of Arkadelphia put up 13 acres, a building and $10,000 to attract the school at a site overlooking the Ouachita River that had been left vacant when the School for the Blind moved to Little Rock.

“Founding president John William Conger and his wife made up a third of the initial faculty,” Granade writes. “OBC began with instruction at all levels — primary, preparatory and collegiate. Primary disappeared by about 1900. Enrollment grew from the original 166 to averaging in the 300s under Conger, and the school maintained a low teacher-student ratio, 17 to 1 in 1907. Initially, women lived on campus while men boarded in town. Student life centered on literary clubs (two for females and two for males) while sports stirred deep passions. The curriculum, standard for colleges of its day, contained a few surprises (like bookkeeping) and featured compulsory military training consistently until 1991.

“Continuing financial difficulties led Arkadelphia citizens to pay the institution’s debt in 1914 and again in 1936 in return for the promise to keep OBC in Arkadelphia permanently. Presidents and supporters began endowment drives several times, but the institution accumulated little until World War I. Since 1925, the institution has been a regular part of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention annual budget, which has helped stabilize its finances. Being included in the state convention’s budget came at a price, one which demonstrated the tension between the convention and the school over academic freedom on the issue of evolution.”

The Arkansas Baptist State Convention adopted an anti-evolution position in 1924 that was stronger than that adopted the previous year by the Southern Baptist Convention.

“The man who guided OBC through this clash between Christian fundamentalism and modern science, Dr. Charles Ernest Dicken, informed OBC trustees that he and every faculty member would sign the SBC statement, which initially satisfied the trustees,” Granade writes. “At a called meeting that roughly coincided with John T. Scopes’ arrest in Tennessee, the trustees rescinded their earlier position and found only the fundamentalist statement acceptable. Dicken resigned, effective June 1, 1926.

“Seven of the 24 faculty members also refused to sign the anti-evolution statement, and all seven forfeited employment. Twelve signed with a caveat. Only five signed outright. One trustee observed that the convention’s action would keep the school from hiring ‘the highest type of educator,’ a fear borne out as the school endured three new presidents during the next seven years.”

Ouachita had hired its first faculty member with a doctorate in 1913.

“That chemist began a tradition of terminal degree holders teaching science,” Granade writes. “In 1921, the institution began encouraging faculty without terminal degrees to pursue them and hired its first woman PhD holder in 1929 (in mathematics).”

The Methodists in Arkadelphia saw what the Baptists were accomplishing at Ouachita in the late 1880s and decided they wanted their own school.

“Local members of the Methodist state convention decided to start a college to serve students in southern Arkansas and to compete with Ouachita,” writes Henderson historian David Sesser. “Arkadelphia Methodist College was the third Methodist college in the state, joining male-only Hendrix College in Conway and Galloway Female College in Searcy. Arkadelphia Methodist College was the first co-educational school in the Methodist state convention.

“Methodist citizens of Arkadelphia originally tried to secure Hendrix College when its location was moved in 1889 from Altus to Conway, but they were unsuccessful in their efforts. With $30,000 and a location already pledged to the school, the people of Arkadelphia set out to create their own institution. After receiving the blessing of the board of education of the Little Rock Conference of the Methodist Church, a 15-member board of trustees was selected and immediately set out to create a school. On April 19, 1890, a nine-acre campus, located north of Arkadelphia, was purchased from Harriet Barkman.”

A couple of ravines separated the new campus from Ouachita. Architect Thomas Harding was hired, and the first term was scheduled to begin the first Wednesday in September of 1890. There were 110 students enrolled on Sept. 3 of that year.

“The classes were held in the public school building, and the students were housed in private homes around Arkadelphia,” Sesser writes. “Students took classes in mathematics, natural and physical sciences, mental science, English, history and reading. Upon completing the required courses, men were awarded the bachelor of philosophy degree while women received the mistress of English literature degree. Bachelor of science, bachelor of arts and artium magister (MA) degrees were also awarded. A preparatory department was established, and children of local residents attended classes during the day.

“The college grew slowly through the 1890s, adding a kindergarten and education classes in 1896. Participation in debate and oratory competitions led to the adoption of the original school colors, cream and pink. In 1893, the main building was finally ready to be occupied. Housing everything from the library and classrooms to the women’s dormitory, the new building quickly became the center of campus. Housing for men didn’t open until 1903, when a former private residence was converted to that use.”

Sidewalks linking Ouachita and Henderson were completed in the early 1900s. The school yearbook started in 1905, and the school newspaper was established in 1908.

“With the campus’ growth, the size of the student body also grew through the 1890s,” Sesser writes. “By 1905, the number of students taking collegiate-level classes began to drop. By 1909, the school was debt free largely due to the work of prominent Arkadelphia citizens and, to a lesser extent, the Little Rock Conference of the Methodist Church. In 1904, the name of the institution was changed for the first time. In honor of Captain Charles Christopher Henderson’s service on the board of trustees and his continued financial support of the college, the name of Arkadelphia Methodist College was changed to Henderson College at the annual commencement. In 1911, the name of Henderson College was expanded to Henderson-Brown College in honor of Walter William Brown, business partner of Henderson and a member of the board of trustees.”

Henderson had been born in Scott County in March 1850. He was the third of eight children. The family lived in both Scott and Sebastian counties when he was a boy. Henderson was just 14 when his father died.

“Around 1870, Henderson’s mother moved to Arkadelphia to be near her brother and sister, who lived in the community,” Sesser writes. “Henderson worked for a livestock company based in St. Louis and followed his mother to Arkadelphia in 1879. It was around this time that he began to be called Captain Henderson. He married Laura Bell Hall in 1880 and constructed a home in Arkadelphia the same year. The couple had two daughters and a son. Henderson worked in a number of industries after arriving in Arkadelphia, including cotton and dairies.

“Henderson began investing in timber and sawmills in the early 1880s and became a partner in a number of firms, including the Arkadelphia Lumber Co., the Nashville Lumber Co. and the Brown-Henderson Improvement & Timber Co. These investments in timber led to additional interests in 10 railroad companies, including the Memphis, Paris & Gulf Railroad. In turn, Henderson became active in banking in order to finance various projects and served as president of Elk Horn Bank from 1905-16.”

Henderson had been heavily influenced by a Methodist minister who lived with his family during the Civil War and remained active in the church for the remainder of his life. He raised funds to build a new Methodist church at Arkadelphia and was often a delegate to Methodist gatherings.

“As Henderson prospered, he built a large home on the north side of the city, directly across the street from Arkadelphia Methodist College,” Sesser writes. “Henderson was appointed to the board of trustees of the college in December 1891. Henderson’s wife was active in the movement to establish the college and took classes there. Henderson served on the board for more than a decade before he began to make large donations to the college. The school was chronically short of funds and for almost 14 years operated under a lease with the first president, George Jones.

“The board repeatedly tried to buy out Jones’ lease but was unable to do so until Henderson found a solution. In 1901, he donated $11,000 to pay off the existing debts of the institution and during the next three years led efforts for the board to gain complete control. This was completed in 1904 when Jones left the college. In honor of Henderson’s efforts, the college was renamed Henderson College.”

Captain Henderson was chairman of the board from 1903-22.

“After the departure of Jones, the board created a three-member committee to run the operations of the college,” Sesser writes. “Committee chair John Hinemon took the responsibility of overseeing daily operations, but Henderson and fellow committee member Eli McDaniel remained heavily involved in all financial decisions. Henderson continued to make large donations and purchases for the college. In 1905, he paid $5,250 to settle a claim for the college. In 1909, he gave $10,000 to pay off additional debts.”

Brown gave an additional $10,000 at that time.

“After a fire in 1914 destroyed the main building on campus, Henderson donated $5,000 to the rebuilding effort,” Sesser writes. “In 1913, Henderson moved to El Paso in Texas, where he operated banking institutions. He continued his service on the board. In failing health, he resigned as chairman of the board in 1922 but continued to serve. He was replaced as chairman by Harvey Couch, the founder of Arkansas Power & Light Co. Henderson died on June 4, 1923.”

Athletics were important on both sides of the ravine from the start.

“The most popular game quickly became football,” Sesser writes. “In 1907, the Battles of the Ravine began to be played on an annual basis (there had been a game in 1895 followed by a long break in the series). By then, Henderson’s school colors had changed to red and gray. The athletic teams were first known as the Red Jackets or the Red Men, but by 1908 were simply the Reds. Soon, that name evolved into the Reddies (and Lady Reddies), the name that remains to this day. The school also remains without a traditional mascot.”

Henderson-Brown was lucky to survive the big fire of Feb. 3, 1914, and may not have without Captain Henderson’s support.

“The fire broke out in the main building and quickly engulfed the entire structure,” Sesser writes. “Thanks to the efforts of the male students of both Henderson-Brown and Ouachita, the entire library, several pianos and countless personal effects were saved. The building itself was a total loss. Subsequently, the entire student body met in a pine grove near the remains of the building and discussed the next step in the future of the college. Out of an enrollment of nearly 300, only seven students decided to leave. The decision of most of the students to stay and rebuild their school is known as the birth of the Reddie Spirit.

“New structures were built to replace the main building, and classes continued in tents and in classrooms at Ouachita. The first men’s dormitory was built in 1920, and a new academic building known as College Hall was finished in 1915. By 1929, enrollment stood at 153, a drop of 50 from just the year before. The Little Rock Conference decided after much debate to consolidate Henderson-Brown and Hendrix and create one co-educational institution of higher learning in Little Rock. The move to Little Rock never occurred. Hendrix remained in Conway.”

Henderson-Brown students, faculty members and Arkadelphia business leaders were incensed.

“After negotiations with state lawmakers, it was decided to turn control of Henderson-Brown over to the state rather than close its doors,” Sesser writes. “In 1929, the institution became known as Henderson State Teachers College. The name of Hendrix was changed to Hendrix-Henderson College and remained so for about two years before once again becoming Hendrix College.”

Across the ravine, Ouachita continued its work.

“Associations that were formed through Baptist mission work, particularly that done by graduates, attracted international students from Latin America, Africa and Asia, starting with Charles Pong from 1922-26,” Granade writes. “Enrollment averaged about 300 until better financial times, and the GI Bill helped swell enrollment to average in the 500s after World War II. Literary clubs were replaced by social clubs, and the beginning of national honor societies. … The Preparatory Department disappeared by World War I, as did an early MA program in all disciplines. The military training program expanded with the advent of the Students’ Army Training Corps and the Reserve Officer Training Corps program, with such success than an Army magazine article dubbed Ouachita the ‘West Point of the Ozarks.’

“During World War II, the institution housed the 67th College Training Detachment Aircrew. The college achieved accreditation for the first time in 1928 and standardized its curricular structure in the 1940s. The postwar economic boom and Great Society spending on higher education provided growth and relief to the financial picture and led to expansion in Ouachita’s size and programs. Enrollment averaged about 1,300 during the 1950s and 1960s (when it reached its greatest enrollment ever at 1,881 students in 1966).”

The first black students were admitted in 1962. They were Michael and Mary Makosholo from what was then known as Rhodesia. Two years later, the trustees opened admission to students from all races. Carolyn Jean Green became the first African American to enroll in the fall of 1964.

“In 1959, the institution added a graduate program in history and religion, which narrowed solely to education after a few years (abandoned in 1991) and a nursing school in 1965 (abandoned two years later),” Granade writes. “That provided justification for assuming university status. Holders of PhD degrees became vital when the North Central Association pressed for terminal degrees in all fields, and the institution’s success allowed it to sustain accreditation after 1953, at which time 96 percent of students were Baptist and 80 percent were from Arkansas.”

At Henderson, the move to become a state institution was a good thing for the school.

“Henderson State Teachers College began to expand at a rate never envisioned while it was a Methodist college,” Sesser writes. “Six major buildings were built during the Great Depression. Accreditation was attained in 1934. After World War II, enrollment more than doubled to 500. In 1929, only 153 students had attended. Graduate classes were first offered in 1951 through the University of Arkansas. In 1955, Henderson’s first graduate degree program began.

“To reflect the change in the focus of the institution, the name was changed to Henderson State College in 1967 and to Henderson State University in 1975. Under the leadership of President D.D. McBrien, the college integrated, admitting its first black students in 1955. One of them, Maurice Horton, went on to become the first African American to earn an undergraduate degree at a primarily white institution in Arkansas, graduating in 1957. Henderson has an excellent academic record. It has produced several Rhodes, Fulbright and Rotary International scholars.”

Ouachita was growing in size right along with Henderson.

“Through gifts and purchases, the campus extended northward along the river until it encompassed more than 200 acres,” Granade writes. “Over time, the campus accumulated a variety of buildings, including former residences and barracks along with World War II-era structures in a hodgepodge of sizes and styles. In the early 1970s, the school developed a plan to provide a unified architectural style and to envision campus growth. Renovating and retrofitting the institution’s first freestanding library building (built in 1949 and then expanded in 1987) — as well as transforming the oldest remaining campus building, former women’s dormitory Cone Bottoms (built in 1923), into an administration building in 1994 — departed from the plan.

“Initially, the institution named buildings to honor exemplary service. More recently, building names generally honored significant donors. By 2008, nine buildings housed all on-campus academic activities. In 2014, Ouachita dedicated a new football stadium, Cliff Harris Stadium, and broke ground on the Ben Elrod Center for Family and Community.”

1 view0 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