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Arkadelphia Presbyterian Academy, located in Arkadelphia (Clark County), was a co-educational elementary and secondary school operated by the Presbyterian Board of Missions for Freedmen. This board was part of the “Northern” Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), which founded schools for African Americans across the South after the Civil War. The board began opening schools for freed slaves as early as the 1860s, but the movement arrived late in Arkansas. It was not 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 in the state.
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 of the Board of Missions for Freedmen in 1889. At that time, the board purchased thirty-eight acres, including a frame building, to house the institution.
There is very little known about the next decade in the academy’s history. By 1900, however, Reverend 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, and, again, information is scarce for the next few years.
According to the 1904 report of the Missionary and Benevolent Boards and Committees to the General Assembly in 1904, Rev. B. M. Ward was serving as the principal of the academy, and enrollment was 105. By 1906, enrollment had dropped to seventy-seven students, but there was a new, two-story classroom and administration building, which also served as a boys’ dormitory. The Wards left in March 1906 and were 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 Miss A. Nelson.
In 1910, a new building was built at the cost of almost $5,000. By 1913, enrollment had increased to around 300, and there were eight faculty members. When Thomas Jesse Jones visited the academy in 1914 and 1915, he found an elementary school with only a few students in the secondary grades. Only a small number of these were boarding students. His attendance figures differ significantly from Parker’s. Although the school reported an enrollment of 377, he indicates that there were 195 elementary and five secondary school students. He indicates that there were six black teachers—two male and four female—and that four of these 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.”
In 1920, C. W. Black of Malvern, Iowa, gave the academy $25,000, which funded the construction of Black Memorial Hall. The new building provided a dining room, kitchen, recitation rooms, and housing for female boarding students. In 1922, the combined administration building and boys’ dormitory burned to the ground. It was replaced two years later; a cottage for the principal was also built at this time. By this time, the academy offered all twelve grades, and school was in session for thirty-two weeks each year. According to Parker, “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.”
This situation changed very soon, however. Dr. Feaster died in March 1926. He was replaced by Rev. Elmo C. Hames, who died in September 1926. Rev. L. W. Davis, who had been teaching at the academy, took over the helm on October 1, 1926. According to Parker, “During this period the temper of the campus and community was tense and filled with many misgivings. The uncertainty of coming events was too frustrating for the mission to thrive in a town the size of Arkadelphia.” Davis strove to keep the school open, but the main building and Black Memorial Hall were destroyed by a “fire of undetermined but suspicious origin” in 1931.
The Board of Missions felt it had only two choices—to close the school or to move it. In 1933, they decided to merge it with another Presbyterian school, Cotton Plant Academy. The new, stronger institution in Cotton Plant (Woodruff County) was named the Arkadelphia-Cotton Plant Academy, and Rev. Davis became the principal. According to Parker, “Beyond a doubt, the Board’s education program rose to its highest stature of permanence and effectiveness in the state of Arkansas at the Arkadelphia-Cotton Plant Academy.”
For additional information:Jones, Thomas Jesse. Negro Education. Bureau of Education Bulletin 1916, no. 39. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1916
Parker, Inez Moore. The Rise and Decline of the Program of Education for Black Presbyterians of the United Presbyterian Church U.S.A., 1865–1970. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1977.
Nancy Snell GriffithClinton, South Carolina
Last Updated 7/18/2013
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