ARKANSAS TRAVEL: Pine Bluff museum is full of black college history

Posted: February 6, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

A large mural picturing figures related to the history of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff dominates the school’s University Museum and Cultural Center.

PINE BLUFF -- If you know that the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff houses an enlightening museum focused on the higher education of black Arkansans since the Civil War, count yourself among a select sliver of the population.

If you've actually toured the University Museum and Cultural Center, then count yourself fortunate to have seen the fact-packed exhibits, which offer visual and verbal insights on race relations in the Natural State since the 1870s. If you haven't yet paid a visit, the fact that February is Black History Month could provide the impetus to stop by.

Opened in 2005, the museum is mainly the creation of Henri Linton Sr., an artist renowned for his aerial landscapes and other paintings displayed in public settings around the state. He works as the center's director after many years as chairman of the college's art department. A fount of information, he is happy to show visitors around the museum if not otherwise occupied.

Now enrolling about 2,700 students, UAPB began life in 1873 as Branch Normal College, with the primary aim of educating teachers for the state's black schools. Its first class consisted of just seven students. Only in 1882 did Branch Normal grant a college degree, believed to have been the first ever achieved by a black Arkansan.

Museum displays are forthright about some of the less illustrious episodes in the school's history. One exhibit, prefiguring the current national clamor over sexual harassment, shows a 1915 photograph of student Ophelia Wade. She alleged such harassment by W.S. Harris, a white man who had been named supervisor of the school four years earlier.



As the photo's information panel explains: "One of the most significant events ... in the entire history of the school up to that time occurred. A student strike ensued for the first time and resulted in the Branch Normal College being closed from March 23, 1915, to September 1915 and the separation of W.S. Harris from Branch Normal College."

But most of the history retold in the museum is an inspiring account of black striving and success in a state that enforced Jim Crow laws of racial disparity until the civil rights era and discrimination even later.

Branch Normal's name was changed in 1927 to Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College (aka AM&N). In the following year, the first intercollegiate sports teams were organized as the Lion became the school mascot. Sports exhibits are part of the museum's collection, including one of the last AM&N marching band uniforms before the school was merged in 1972 with the University of Arkansas system to take on its present identity.

The merger was not without opposition among those in the AM&N community. One of the faces pictured in the dazzling mural that covers two walls overlooking the museum's main floor is that of Tommie McCall Jr., who led a campus protest against the amalgamation. The concern was that the school would lose its black identity. Museum director Linton believes those roots have been pretty much preserved.

Posted on the museum's website is Linton's testament to UAPB, which "stands as a beacon of light illuminating the lives and struggles of the many individuals who labored to transform a small teacher's college founded in 1875 in an old dilapidated military barracks with seven students and limited resources, into a modern state university that continues to prepare students for an ever-changing technological world."

The core of the museum's collection carries the title "Keepers of the Spirit." That reflects what a brochure describes as "a direct linkage between the saga of this institution and the historical, educational and cultural experiences of the people of this region of the state."

The University Museum and Cultural Center is housed in University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff's Childress Hall, 1200 N. University Drive, Pine Bluff. Museum hours are 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday. Admission is free; donations are welcome. For more information, call (870) 575-8234 or visit uapb.edu/museum.

Style on 02/06/2018