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Joseph Carter Corbin, journalist, served as Arkansas state superintendent of public instruction during Reconstruction and was the founder and president of the first African-American institution of higher education in Arkansas.
Joseph C. Corbin was born in Chillicothe, Ohio, on March 26, 1833, the eldest son of free black parents, William and Susan Corbin. He had eleven siblings. He attended school during the winter months, a common practice at the time.
In 1848, Corbin traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, to assist Reverend Henry A. Adams as a teacher. He taught school for some years and then attended Ohio University at Athens. He graduated with a BA in art in 1853 and an MA in art in 1856. An honorary doctoral degree was later conferred on Corbin by an unknown Baptist institution in the South. According to some sources, Corbin worked as a messenger in the Bank of Ohio Valley at Cincinnati and edited and published a newspaper, The Colored Citizen, for eight years.
On September 11, 1866, Corbin married Mary J. Ward, a Kentucky native, in Cincinnati. They had six children, two of whom lived to adulthood. In 1872, the family moved to Little Rock (Pulaski County), where Corbin worked as a reporter for the Arkansas Republican and later as chief clerk in the Little Rock Post Office.
From 1873 to 1875, Corbin served as Arkansas’s superintendent of public instruction and, by virtue of holding that office, was president of the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees. As president, he signed the contract for the construction of University Hall (now called Old Main), which was the first building at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County). It was very unusual for a black man to hold such a position during that time, but he was qualified and connected with the Republican Party establishment in power then in the South.
Corbin later taught mathematics, according to the best available evidence, for two years at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, beginning in the fall of 1874. Corbin had worked on legislation to create a college in Arkansas for black students. That legislation was adopted in 1873, but there was no time to put it into operation because Reconstruction was overthrown with the Brooks-Baxter War of 1874 and Republican state officials lost their jobs. Corbin did not sell his house in Little Rock, and when he was vacationing there, then-U.S. Attorney General Augustus H. Garland (later governor) encouraged him to open Branch Normal College of the Arkansas Industrial University in Jefferson County. In 1875, Corbin was appointed principal of Branch Normal, a position he held until 1902. The school is now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
While at Branch Normal, he conducted teacher training institutes in Arkansas and Oklahoma, under the state superintendent of public schools, believing that such courses inspired teachers to improve and gave them the opportunity to see exhibitions and new methods of teaching. With R. C. Childress, a teacher at Branch Normal, Corbin formed the Teachers of Negro Youth, the first state association for black teachers, in 1898. Corbin was the first president of that organization. Twenty years after his death, the organization became known as the Arkansas Teachers Association, which, after integration, merged with the Arkansas Education Association in 1969.
Branch Normal’s enrollment grew from seven students in 1875 to 241 by 1894. A two-story brick building with classrooms and an assembly hall was constructed. A dormitory for girls was also built, and an industrial department was established with courses in sewing, typing, and printing. These were added between 1880 and 1900. Corbin’s daughter worked as the sewing and industrial teacher for women, and his wife taught art at the school. Corbin himself wrote articles on mathematics and constructed mathematical puzzles that were published in Barnes’ Educational School Visitors, the Mathematical Visitor, the Mathematical Magazine, and the Mathematical Gazette.
Corbin spoke and read Greek, Latin, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, and Danish. He seems to have taught himself because he was very interested in languages. He taught Greek and Latin at Branch Normal until the curriculum was modified in 1889. He played and taught students to play piano, organ, and flute and trained the Normal School choir, which was featured at every commencement. A civic-minded man, Corbin served as secretary and third Grand Master of the Arkansas chapter of the Prince Hall Masons and as vice president of the Colored Industrial Fair.
Corbin experienced conflict with the Board of Trustees of Branch Normal as well as the state legislature, which recommended he be fired in April of 1893 because of an investigation into alleged financial mismanagement of the school. He was dismissed in 1902. In 1905, he became principal of Merrill Public School in Pine Bluff.
Corbin died on January 9, 1911, in Pine Bluff and is buried in Chicago, Illinois.
For additional information:
Finney, Gladys Turner. Joseph Carter Corbin: Educator Extraordinaire and Founder of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2017.
Logan, Rayford W., and Michael Winston. Dictionary of American Negro Biography. New York: W.W. Norton, 1982.
Rothrock, Thomas. “Joseph Carter Corbin and Negro Education in the University of Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 30 (Winter 1971): 277–314.
Simmons, William J. Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, 1970.
This entry, originally published in Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives, appears in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture in an altered form. Arkansas Biography is available from the University of Arkansas Press.
Last Updated 3/16/2017
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