As schools and universities across Arkansas begin their school years, teachers and administrators continue their work to educate students and improve lives. Southland College, located in Phillips County, had been such an institution, serving not only as one of the earliest colleges in the state but a pioneer in higher education for African-Americans.

As schools and universities across Arkansas begin their school years, teachers and administrators continue their work to educate students and improve lives. Southland College, located in Phillips County, had been such an institution, serving not only as one of the earliest colleges in the state but a pioneer in higher education for African-Americans.

Southland College began as an effort by Quakers to help the African-American community in the midst of the Civil War as part of their crusade against slavery. Quakers, also called the Society of Friends, had been the first religious group in the United States to condemn slavery. They considered slavery a sin and had been calling for its end since before the American Revolution. They continued their outspoken opposition in the years leading up to the Civil War.

As the Civil War erupted and the emancipation of slaves steadily became more of a reality as Union armies pressed forward, more Quakers began moving to the South to help the newly freed slaves adjust to a life of freedom. Arkansas was no exception.

In 1864, one Quaker couple from Indiana, Calvin and Alida Clark, arrived in Helena to help abandoned and orphaned African-American children. Slavery had just been officially outlawed by the state’s new Unionist government, but the chaos from the waves of refugees fleeing the continuing battles was creating a new humanitarian crisis. Families were separated in the confusion, and poor communications had made finding loved ones almost impossible.

The Clarks operated their orphanage and school in Helena for two years, trying to help the children build stable lives. Even as the war ended, the needs of the children continued. The school moved to a rural location northwest of Helena in 1866 and was maintained by local volunteers and donations from Quakers across the nation.

While the focus remained on children, many adult freedmen were anxious to gain an education themselves as the law had denied it to them under slavery. Slowly, programs for adult learners emerged as well. By the early 1870s, Southland was a degree-granting institution. The school was producing African-American teachers, among the few qualified and trained in Arkansas. Some of the orphans who grew up at Southland were now graduating and moving into teaching careers.

Its establishment as a degree-granting institution made Southland not only the first African-American college in Arkansas, but the first African-American college west of the Mississippi River, even predating what is now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, founded in 1873.

Southland grew steadily, moving from a few dozen students in the early 1870s to more than 200 by 1876. A small community, also called Southland, began to grow around the college. Five buildings were constructed on the campus by 1885, with room for 300 students, all built by African-American volunteers in the area.

In 1886, the Clarks stepped down from their leadership roles with Southland. The school struggled until Harry and Anna Wolford, Ohio Quakers, took control of the school in 1902. The Wolfords revitalized the school, building enrollment from under 100 to more than 400. They made a special point never to turn away a student.

World War I and the aftermath, including the often violent racial clashes in the area, created a huge strain for Southland. The departure of the Wolfords left the college without solid leadership. Although an effort was made by Quakers to enhance the prestige and expand the institution, enrollment and donations tumbled in the 1920s.

In 1925, the college shut down completely. A few years later, the African Methodist Episcopal Church bought the property and attempted to revive the school as the Walters-Southland Institute. However, it too closed by the mid-1940s. Though it lasted only a few short decades, Southland enriched many lives through the promise of education.