The demise of small-town colleges

While traveling through the Cleburne County village of Quitman recently, I was reminded that the town had been the location and namesake of the long-dead Quitman College. Established in 1870 by the Methodist Church, Quitman Male and Female College was as much preparatory school as college--like most of the "colleges" in Arkansas at that time. The Methodists ceased sponsorship of the college in 1898, reflecting the economic hardships facing a church that was trying to establish a network of educational institutions in a poor rural state only a generation removed from the devastation of the Civil War.

Arkansas is full of small towns that were home to a wide variety of colleges that no longer exist. Many were religious in nature, such as Morris-Booker College in Dermott, a black Baptist institution that floundered economically within the past 30 years. Cane Hill College was established by Cumberland Presbyterian settlers in western Washington County in 1834 and survived until 1891. Vilonia in rural Faulkner County was home to Arkansas Holiness College from 1900-1931. Even tiny Witcherville in south Sebastian County was home to Buckner College, an Episcopal institution, for two years during the late 1880s.

Fayetteville, which prides itself as a center of higher education, was home to a number of small private colleges before the University of Arkansas was located there during Reconstruction. In 1843 a group of Whigs and Presbyterians attempted to open the Far West Seminary in Fayetteville, partly motivated by a desire to counter "the dangerous strides of Popish and Jesuitical influence." Interestingly, the Seminary board included a Cherokee Indian.

It was not by accident that small towns were chosen for these new denominational colleges. Arkansas was a rural state until relatively recently, and parents of college students wanted to make sure their children were not exposed to the vices associated with larger towns, of which there were few.

Today we are amazed by the strict conduct expected of students in some of these long-ago colleges. The Missionary Baptist College at Sheridan in Grant County south of Little Rock opened its doors in the Big Creek Baptist Church in 1919. Students were expected to "reject playing with cards and the temptations to gaze at the disgusting, immoral, and suggestive screen of the great seminary vice called 'the moving picture show.'" Joy riding was also discouraged.

This early Missionary Baptist college even challenged competitive sports, its early catalog promising: "The school will campaign against the modern sport and game spirit which has invaded every educational institution in America. Our college places the old time Biblical doctrine that 'bodily exercise is profitable for a little, but godliness is profitable for all times.'"

The late Robert W. Meriwether, a longtime Hendrix College faculty member and a student of Arkansas Methodist colleges, has written that Galloway Female College "would never have been located in Searcy if White County had not voted 'dry' in 1888." Alcohol consumption was almost universally forbidden at colleges throughout Arkansas--and much of the country.

Social relations between the sexes were carefully controlled at most small colleges around the state. Students at Galloway were always under the watchful eyes of the faculty and administrators. Meriwether has written that "girls could not leave the school grounds unless properly chaperoned and could receive 'callers' only under the most limited and supervised conditions."

Despite their relatively weak curricula, these small-town colleges were important in training teachers. Nowhere was this more the case than at Southland College at Lexa near Helena in Phillips County. Established during the Civil War as an orphanage for black children, it was supported by the Freedmen's Bureau after the War and later the Society of Friends--Quakers--assumed control of the school.

Though Southland eventually died of economic need in the 1920s, it had a profound impact on black education in Arkansas. While much of its early work was of a preparatory nature--after all, most of its early students were illiterate former slaves--soon the school decided to concentrate on training teachers, and in 1876 Southland awarded its first teaching degrees.

In 1880 Southland chose a few of its own graduates to join the faculty, becoming the first racially integrated faculty in Arkansas. One Southland student who went on to graduate from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, George W. Bell, joined the faculty as a professor of metaphysics, Greek, physics, and rhetoric. He later served a term in the Arkansas state Senate. After years of financial challenge, Southland closed in 1925.

This essay has mentioned only a tiny percentage of the scores of small colleges that arose and died throughout Arkansas history.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com. An earlier version of this column was published April 8, 2007.

Editorial on 06/18/2017

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