The second oldest institution of higher learning in the state, junior only to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, UAPB was founded by the legislature in 1873 as Branch Normal College, a division of Arkansas Industrial University, as the UA was then known. "Normal" signified that it was a college to train teachers. The legislation said that the college was intended to serve "the poorer classes." Everyone understood that as a euphemism for "blacks."
The Pine Bluff school is also the state's second land-grant institution - Fayetteville was first there, too. Black land-grant colleges, eligible for federal aid, were authorized across the South by the Morrill Act of 1890. The concept of "separate but equal" educational facilities for blacks and whites was then popular in the region. The schools were never really equal, of course, as Michael Dougan writes in "Arkansas Odyssey":
"The sagging hopes of Arkansas blacks [in the late 19th and early 20th centuries] were reflected in the problems that beset Isaac Fisher, president of Branch Normal College at Pine Bluff. … Fisher found that his title was merely nominal because whites had taken financial control of the school. His tenure was stormy from the start and included a barely aborted attempt by the legislature to allocate school money by race, vetoes of the school's funding by Governor Jeff Davis, and persistent harassment by white officials bent on discrediting Fisher and the school. Frustrated by his inability to function, Fisher resigned in 1911. Fisher left Arkansas to become a leading black educator, leaving Branch Normal as an example without peer among Southern black schools of the true meaning of 'Separate but Equal.' Students staged a general strike four years later to protest a white administrator's sexual abuse of black female students."
Things hadn't gotten much better by the '20s, although by then the school had been separated from the UA and had its own board of trustees, appointed by the governor. Here is Dougan again:
"Black higher education was far below the standard for whites. … [A] 1928 study revealed that Arkansas had the lowest proportion of blacks in college of any Southern state. Branch Normal College at Pine Bluff became Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal (AM&N) in 1922 but remained basically a junior college whose faculty was overworked, underpaid and bereft of freedom to criticize these conditions or lead the black community."
The school has had several names, and the histories sometimes conflict over when the names were changed. A UAPB history, "One Hundred and Thirty Years of Progress," published in 2003, says that Branch Normal School became Arkansas Agricultural and Normal School in 1921, and AM&N College in 1927. Further complicating the nomenclature, UAPB Chancellor Lawrence A. Davis Jr. says the school was once known, at least informally, as "Arkansas State," short for "Arkansas State College for Negroes," but a white institution in Jonesboro effectively wrested the "Arkansas State" name away, with the legislature's assistance. Because of that unhappy experience, UAPB has copyrighted its motto: "Flagship of the Delta." Arkansas State University won't get that one, Davis promises.
The school was certified as a four-year college in 1933. In 1943, Lawrence A. Davis Sr., an AM&N alumnus, was named president. At 29, he was the youngest college president in the country, and he would lead his alma mater for 30 years.
Neglected and underfunded as the institution has usually been, finding a golden age at UAPB is difficult, but the school had some comparatively bright moments under Davis, who for most of his tenure seemed unusually skilled at pleasing constituencies who wanted vastly different things. Blacks wanted advancement. Whites wanted peace and quiet.
With the help of Gov. Sid McMath, Davis even managed a fairly substantial building program. According to his son, the current chancellor, most of the buildings on campus were constructed in either his father's administration or his own.
This is the sort of thing that Davis Sr. had to deal with. In 1958, he invited as graduation speaker the rising young civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The students wanted to hear King. The all-white legislature was displeased, especially a powerful and vindictive state representative named Paul Van Dalsem, from Perry County. "He cut the AM&N appropriation from $850,000 to $800,000 and kept it there for four years," Davis Jr. says. A photograph of Davis Sr. and King hangs in Davis Jr.'s office.
Eventually, Davis Sr. couldn't satisfy all the varied demands on him. As blacks grew more militant, many found Davis too accommodating to white officials. Local white legislators, on the other hand, began to see him as not accommodating enough. Problems of financial management were uncovered at the college. In his own defense, Davis, who'd always run the school out of his back pocket, said more or less openly that there might have been serious racial disturbances at Pine Bluff had he not spread money around in the right places. White Pine Bluff legislators were unimpressed. In 1972, they forced AM&N back into the UA system. Most AM&N students and alumni opposed the merger, fearing a loss of the school's identity. Some of them packed the legislative galleries during debate on the bill, at least one carrying a sign that said "Burn, Baby, Burn." UA officials weren't keen on the merger either, but accepted it rather than alienate legislators. Davis Sr. became the first chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, though it was obvious he wouldn't have the job long. He left in 1973. In 1991, his son, who'd grown up on the campus, was named chancellor. The elder Davis died last month, at 89.
Always short on money, always long on criticism - that seems to be the recurring theme at UAPB, where controversy has broken out yet again. But Davis Jr. says UAPB's golden age may finally be dawning, at least in terms of financial equality.
"Our facilities have not always been comparable to the white schools," he says. "Only in the last 10 years have we been able to compete." He gives credit primarily to three people - Diane Gilleland, former director of the state Department of Higher Education; Alan Sugg, president of the University of Arkansas, and former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker. "We brought these three individuals to our campus. It was an embarrassment to everybody. Because of them, we were allotted more state money for our campus than we'd ever had before.
"We built a new stadium. We constructed a business incubator downtown. We've done a number of renovations. We renovated the bell tower [centerpiece of the campus] and made it operational again. We took all the traffic off campus and made it a pedestrian campus. We built a new dorm that we think will increase our enrollment. We acquired a 780-acre research farm at Lonoke and we're operating it, studying water tables and catfish production. Our aquaculture program is among the tops in the world."
Though there are still some who question the merger, Davis says, "I don't think the school could have survived and reached where it is now if it hadn't been under the umbrella of the U of A system. Some things just wouldn't have happened." He also says that the way the merger was pushed through shows that AM&N lacked the political influence to get the resources it needed on its own. "No other school in the state could have been merged like that. … They alleged mismanagement of money [by Davis Sr.] but they never really had anything." The elder Davis would have been willing to work for a merger in a more deliberate fashion, Davis Jr. said, "but they wanted it right away." The younger Davis was in graduate school at Iowa State at the time.
He's 67 now, and health permitting, he intends to stay another three to five years at UAPB. Despite the continuing criticism, he says, "Support for this institution is greater than it's ever been." UAPB is due some good times.