Review: A History of Southland College: The Society of Friends and Black Education in Arkansas
Thomas C. Kennedy. A History of Southland College: The Society of Friends and Black Education in Arkansas. Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2009. 424 pp. ISBN: 978-1-55-728916-2.
In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, members of the Society of Friends (or Quakers), reflecting their century-long campaign to end slavery and racial oppression in the United States, mobilized to aid and educate the freedpeople of the southern states. Historians have documented East Coast Friends’ short-lived efforts in Virginia and South Carolina, but they have paid little attention to Midwest Friends’ much lengthier endeavors in Arkansas. Beginning in 1863 and continuing for over sixty years, Indiana Quakers sponsored and supported the black college of Southland. Thomas Kennedy’s A History of Southland College offers an exhaustive account of Friends’ long struggle to sustain the school and improve race relations in post-Civil War Arkansas, but the wealth of detail in the narrative often overwhelms the story’s significance.
Kennedy emphasizes the sharp cultural, economic, and social differences between Wayne County, Indiana, the prosperous heartland of Midwest Quakerism, and Phillips County, Arkansas, located in the Mississippi Delta and devastated by war, the end of slavery, and the postwar decline of the cotton economy. Kennedy argues that Indiana Friends, who first arrived in the county seat of Helena in October 1863, came unprepared for “the always-alien and sometimes-hostile” (18) Arkansas environment, and they never completely bridged the racial, cultural, and social divide between themselves and local African Americans. Still, Friends sponsored by the Indiana Yearly Meeting arrived with high aspirations: give “physical aid” to the ex-slaves and encourage their “moral uplift” by teaching the Quaker religion and establishing schools (20). By April 1864, Calvin and Alida Clark spearheaded Friends’ efforts in the area, running a black orphanage and school in Helena. In May 1866, with the aid of black Union troops, they moved the school into the countryside to escape the river town’s hostile and morally suspect atmosphere. In its early years, Southland benefited from the presence of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Republican-dominated Arkansas legislature, and Indiana Friends’ early postwar enthusiasm for the cause of the freedpeople. During the Clarks’ tenure—which ended in 1886—the school averaged over two hundred students per year (though the numbers fluctuated widely) and graduated a large number of black teachers who settled throughout the South. The Clarks’ promotion of the Quaker faith among the local black community proved equally impressive. By 1880, the Southland Monthly Meeting had nearly four hundred members, all but four of whom were African American, and it enjoyed the leadership of black preachers.
But the Clarks also faced an array of problems that plagued the school throughout its life. Above all, the Southland community developed amidst a white community hostile to black education and advancement and to the Quaker outsiders. This antagonism—and associated violence—increased after the mid-1870s when the collapse of Reconstruction enabled former Confederates to recapture political power. In addition, black poverty undermined the school’s efforts to achieve financial self-sufficiency and limited the ability of local blacks to attend. Friends’ commitment to the school also wavered over time, reflecting broader changes in northern attitudes toward the South and African Americans. As a result, the school never enjoyed financial stability, and its leaders and supporters scrambled to raise funds to keep it afloat. Doctrinal splits within Quakerism, particularly the growth of the evangelical Holiness Movement, exacerbated the school’s financial difficulties, distracting Friends from their benevolent efforts and limiting the pool of potential donors to the school.
In Southland’s later years, Quakers divided over the purpose of the school, with many supporters, including the school’s last director L. Raymond Jenkins, calling for manual education instead of academic training. Motivated in part by racist assumptions about black capabilities, the promoters of manual education sought to transform Southland into another Tuskegee. But their plans, which involved the purchase of more land and the construction of new buildings, pushed the school deeper into debt and never produced the anticipated increase in donations. Likewise, managerial reorganization that shifted oversight of the school from the Indiana Friends to a national Quaker organization, along with outreach to non-Quaker funding bodies, failed to stabilize the school’s finances. In the push for manual education, moreover, Southland alienated many local African Americans who desired basic academic skills, while losing its longtime directors, Harry and Anne B. Wolford, who during their twenty-year management of the school developed a close relationship with the local black community and valuable connections to local white businesses. Indeed, in the school’s last years, an alienated Wolford used his influence among the black community to undermine Jenkins’s tenure. In the early 1920s, when Southland failed to obtain funds from national philanthropic organizations, Friends decided to close the school, now deeply indebted and with its physical plant in decay. The Southland Monthly Meeting, long in decline, had ceased to meet by the fall of 1923.
Quakers’ efforts in Arkansas ultimately failed. Yet Kennedy, impressed by the struggle to keep “an improbable school and impossible dream alive” for so many years, sees evidence of Friends’ “Light in the Lord” (263). But if the Southland story inspires, it also reveals the limitations of racial benevolence in the post-Civil War era, even if this aspect of the story is often obscured by Kennedy’s detailed narrative. For all their good will, Friends could not escape the racial biases of the era, making it difficult for them to provide aid that bridged the cultural differences between white Friends and local African Americans and effectively meet black needs. Over its lifetime, Southland aided hundreds of individual African American students, but it could not overcome the political and cultural forces arrayed against black uplift.