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Cotton Plant Academy, located in Cotton Plant (Woodruff County), was a co-educational boarding school operated by the Presbyterian Board of Missions for Freedmen. This board, part of the “Northern” Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), was responsible for founding schools for African Americans across the South after the Civil War. The first Presbyterian schools for freed slaves in the South opened in the 1860s, but the board did not open schools in Arkansas until the 1880s, when a new presbytery had been established in the state and numbers of African Americans from the eastern states were resettling there.
The Cotton Plant Academy started out in the old Jerry Clark home during the 1880s. Later, it was located in a small church near the Rock Island Railroad, which was enlarged to serve as a school. By 1890, the Board of Missions for Freedmen was in charge of the academy. According to the board’s report in 1890, a “good substantial” building had been constructed for the school and was being used by 200 students. The new building provided a girls’ dormitory and living space for female teachers, as well as for the principal and his family. It also contained a kitchen, a dining room, a chapel, a library, and a sitting room. The effort had been funded almost entirely by the Presbyterian women of Illinois. The land, located near the city limits, was a donation from the Young People’s Christian Endeavor Society of Carrollton, Illinois. The Reverend Frank C. Potter was the principal of the academy and was assisted by two teachers.
Enrollment at the school remained high. By 1893, there were five teachers and 212 students, and, by 1895, enrollment stood at 198. Eventually, a six-room house was constructed to provide living quarters for male students. This proved too small, and some of the male students boarded with a local resident. Later, additional housing was constructed for male students.
In 1901, Potter’s wife, upon his death, had taken charge, and enrollment was 174. Several years later, the academy added a new brick two-story building for girls. It was named Nicolls Hall in honor of the Reverend S. J. Nicolls of St. Louis, Missouri, who had been a member of the church’s Board of Aid, which oversaw colleges and academies. In 1902, the Reverend W. A. Byrd took over as principal of the academy. He was replaced by H. M. Stinson in 1910.
According to a report issued by the U.S. Office of Education in 1917, the 1915 enrollment was 175, with 146 students in the elementary school, twenty-nine in the secondary school, and twenty-seven boarders. Stinson was still serving as the principal, and the school was described as “a good school of elementary and secondary grade offering a limited amount of industrial work.” It had eleven grades, and the secondary subjects were “of the college-preparatory type, and…thoroughly taught.” Few public schools in Arkansas at this time provided a college-preparatory curriculum, and most students, black and white, who wanted such an education were forced to attend private academies. Although part of the thirteen-acre campus was farmed for profit and there was some income provided by the boarding students, the school was still primarily funded by the Presbyterian Church.
In the early 1930s, the PCUSA began to question its role in the education of black southerners. As a result, Cotton Plant Academy was merged with Arkadelphia Academy, but the campus remained in Cotton Plant. At that time, Dr. L. W. Davis, who had been the principal at Arkadelphia (Clark County), took over as principal of the merged institutions. The academy remained in operation until 1950.
The Cotton Plant Academy provided a quality education for area black students for more than forty years. Among its distinguished graduates was Albert B. McCoy, the son of slaves, who later graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He eventually became the Presbyterian Church’s Sabbath School Missionary for a large district covering Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, and Arkansas, and was later the first secretary of the Church’s Division of Work with Colored Persons. Another distinguished alumnus was Aaron Manasses McMillan, descended from Haitian slaves, who became a dentist. Florence S. Price, a noted African-American pianist and composer, once taught at the academy. Dorothy Foster, who later became the church’s assistant secretary in the department of women’s work of the PCUSA’s Board of National Missions, was a graduate of the academy and also taught there for eight years.
For additional information:“Brochure of the Cotton Plant Academy.” Rivers and Roads and Points in Between 11 (Spring 1983): 31–32.
Jones, Thomas Jesse. Negro Education: A Study of the Private and Higher Schools for Colored People in the United States. Vol. 2. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1917.
Parker, Inez Moore. The Rise and Decline of the Program of Education for the Black Presbyterians of the United Presbyterian Church U.S.A., 1865–1970. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1977.
Reports of the Boards, Issue 20. General Assembly, Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., 1890. http://books.google.com.pe/books/about/Reports_of_the_boards.html?hl=en&id=7bwQAAAAIAAJ (accessed August 1, 2011).
Stinson, Leona. “The Cotton Plant Academy (Black).” Rivers and Roads and Points in Between 4 (Winter 1976): 83–84.
Nancy Snell GriffithPresbyterian College
Last Updated 6/18/2013
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