History Minute: Philander Smith

In the 1870s, in spite of the pain of Reconstruction, a Renaissance began to occur for Arkansas as some of the most important colleges in the state were born. Part of this flowering of knowledge was the creation of Philander Smith College in Little Rock.

The college's story began in the Midwest with John Morgan Walden, a man of great morality and passion for a variety of social causes. He worked as a writer and editor in Illinois in the early 1850s. After his newspaper failed, he moved back to his native Ohio. In 1856, he moved to Kansas, where he started an abolitionist newspaper and rose to become a territorial legislator and even superintendent of education. The Methodist Church ordained him as a minister in Ohio in 1858. Walden served as a lieutenant colonel in Ohio for the Union Army during the Civil War. During the war, he remained an active minister and became secretary of the Methodist Freedman's Aid Society.

The lack of educational opportunities for the freedmen in Arkansas greatly concerned Walden. Working with the church in Arkansas, Walden worked to establish a seminary to train African-American preachers. Walden Seminary, as it became known, was established at Little Rock's Wesley Chapel Methodist Church in 1877. The college that later emerged was the first private African-American college west of the Mississippi River.

In 1881, the seminary was reorganized as a college with Rev. Thomas Mason named as the first president. In spite of the enthusiasm of the church and the support of educators across the state, the school struggled.

At this point, industrialist and real estate mogul Philander Smith came onto the scene. Smith was the son of a New York sawmill owner and had carefully invested his inheritance over the years. A man of great faith himself, he and his wife Adeline had decided to give away their great fortune to others in need. By the time Smith died in 1882, his fortune was worth more than $125,000, or more than $3 million in modern dollars.

Smith was touched by the efforts of Walden Seminary and in 1881 decided to give a large portion of his fortune to the school. The $10,000 gift, worth nearly $250,000 in modern dollars, revitalized Walden, and the school trustees renamed the school Philander Smith College in his honor.

Philander Smith's endowment also funded the Philander Smith Memorial Hospital in Nanking, China, and the Philander Smith Biblical Institute in Tokyo, Japan, in addition to other causes around the world. A small Methodist school in India, like the Little Rock campus, was renamed Philander Smith College as a result of another generous contribution. This college, however, shut down during World War II.

The Little Rock school was saved by the efforts of the Smith Family. Philander Smith College had already bought land near its modern location of Eleventh and Izard Streets in central Little Rock. The Smith donation made it possible for the college to complete the move. The college was also able to begin offering full four-year college degrees by 1883. The college employed six professors and enrolling more than 200 students in 1887 and awarded its first four-year degree in 1888.

Rev. Mason continued to build the college over the next several years, increasing enrollment, offering new programs and degrees and buildings. He retired in 1896. Today, the college is an immediately recognizable landmark in central Little Rock. Today it boasts nearly 800 students across twenty different degree programs.

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