Lives Transformed: the People of Southland College

In the faces of the students and teachers of Southland College, we glimpse more than sixty years of African-American experiences, aspirations, and triumphs.

This exhibition is intended to provide an introduction to Southland College and some of the many individuals whose lives were directly impacted by this unlikely school. In the faces of the students and teachers of Southland College, we glimpse more than sixty years of African-American experiences, aspirations, and triumphs. The United States underwent tremendous transformation from the era of slavery into the 20th century. Thousands of students and hundreds of teachers passed through the humble wooden structures nine miles northwest of Helena, Arkansas. Many of the students themselves became teachers, as Southland quickly included a Normal School curriculum and extended its educational mission across the country.

Southland College had its genesis as the Helena Orphan Asylum and bore the singular distinction of being the first institution of higher learning west of the Mississippi River for African Americans. That this occurred in Phillips County, Arkansas – perhaps best known for one of the worst race riots in the nation's history, the Elaine Massacre of 1919 – underscores the significance of this unparalleled endeavor.

Southland's evolution into a college was not part of an initial, thoughtful strategy to systemically assist the African-American population of the region. Originally established by Quakers from Indiana as an orphanage for refugee slave children while the Civil War still raged, the Friends' Freedmen Committee appointed Calvin and Alida Clark to form a school on April 19, 1864. The earliest buildings came through donations and the voluntary labor of the 56th U.S. Colored Infantry regiment during Reconstruction. Within ten years, Southland's enrollment grew to more than 200 students under the Clarks' guidance, and the Indiana Yearly Meeting of the Quakers made the school a diploma-granting institution in 1876. Southland made great strides toward satiating the overwhelming longing for literacy felt by former slaves and addressed the acute need for educated teachers and professionals around the country as the African Americans of the Delta moved in search of greater opportunity.

The impact of Southland College is not quantifiable. Hundreds of students graduated with teaching degrees. Recognizing the fruits of educating just one exceptional woman, however, provides some perspective on the magnitude of the school's legacy. Anna Strong (1884–1966), a 1903 graduate of Southland, exemplifies the transformative power of education initiated by the school. Before her election as president of the Arkansas State Teachers Association, her creation of the Key School's Program for the Arkansas Department of Education, or the other numerous honors she received, Strong was a student at Southland. She began teaching others at age thirteen, and after finishing degrees at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and Columbia University, Strong returned to the Arkansas Delta to become principal of the Robert Moton School in Marianna in Lee County, where she served for 30 years until 1957, a career that began in the darkest depths of segregation and saw the first signs of school integration.

Southland reached its peak enrollment, approaching 500 students, in 1917. After several changes in name and direction by national Quaker groups, lingering financial problems eventually caused Southland College to close in 1925, despite the pleas of Strong and other supporters and alumni to see their beloved school continue to nurture generations of African Americans from the South. Despite this heartbreaking loss, the decades of work and the resulting improbable education of so many individuals remains a victory originated in the devastation of the Civil War.

Project and Technical Notes

The University Libraries project team was composed of Catherine Wallack, Project Curator; Deborah E. Kulczak, Head of Technical Services and Database Maintenance; Martha Parker, Digital Services Librarian; and Alyssa Willis, Cataloging Librarian.

Images were digitized and processed by the Digital Services Unit personnel, including the Digital Services Unit Coordinator, Lee A. Holt, Wendy McLean, Alexa Shephard, Rachel Ross, Jayleen Serrano, and Alejandra Rubio using an Epson Expression 10000XL flatbed scanner, a Contex HD Ultra 42” scanner, and Silver Fast Scanning software. Optical character recognition (OCR) was added using ABBYY FineReader. Image optimization was performed using Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Acrobat; transcripts were created and encoded using Notepad++. CONTENTdm digital asset management software from OCLC was used to create metadata, using Dublin Core standards, Library of Congress Name Authorities, the Art and Architectural Thesaurus, and the University of Arkansas Libraries CONTENTdm Cookbook. Dylan Hurd and Beth Juhl from Web Services contributed to the webpage design. The project was completed May 2017.

Special Thanks

This project would not have existed without the multifold efforts of Dr. Thomas C. Kennedy, a longtime professor at the University of Arkansas's Department of History. A historian of Britain and Quakers, Kennedy played the central role in the transfer of the Southland Papers to the University of Arkansas Libraries' Special Collections. Kennedy's thorough and thoughtful scholarship and his publication of A History of Southland College brought to light the chronicle of this singular institution when the story was in danger of being forgotten. His diligence will continue to benefit researchers for the foreseeable future. We are indebted.