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“Firsts” Tells a New Story for Ouachita Baptist


Early into his presidency at Ouachita Baptist University, Dr. Ben Sells set out to gather stories. He wanted to hear from alums, parents, friends, faculty, staff and current students. So, he asked three questions: “What is uniquely Ouachita? What could change? What must stay the same?”

Many priorities were overwhelmingly obvious, but as he sifted through the “what could change” section, he found a variety of responses. Some of these were easy changes to make. Some formed his first priorities and new vision. Others needed to ruminate and find a place to shift for change.

One of these areas was an outdated exhibit on former Senator John McClellan. Sells wanted to rethink the space as a place to tell the historical significance of African-American students, alumni, faculty and staff in the school’s history. Sells challenged two campus leaders and a committee to go through the process of discovering something better.

Gathering History

Amid educating students in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, this group determined honoring African-American students in a high-traffic place on campus could bring honor and awareness to many stories. So, with approval from the university’s board, the group began to research and determine an outline for the exhibit.

Dr. Lisa Speer, one of the project’s leaders, serves as an archivist and history professor. For the 2021 academic year, Speer added a public history special study course to involve students in the research process. Many of these students desire jobs in museums. So, a practicum in research and exhibit-making gave them a real-world, resume-building experience and offered the university the unique opportunity to dive deep into needed research that did not exist in the university’s archives.

The personal stories of many included in the exhibit are the first collection of their kind. Some family members at the dedication had never heard this part of their loved one’s stories. Others struggled to recall hard memories but were grateful for the listening ear of current students and university administrators.

Ouachita Baptist Stories of Firsts

  • Carolyn Jean Green – the first African-American student to graduate from Ouachita, live in the dorm and pledge a social club.
  • Gustine Blevins – after traveling across the country in a U-Haul she slept in at night, this single mother moved to Arkadelphia in pursuit of a new career and enrolled at Ouachita in the first class of African-American students admitted. She received many awards as an educator in Michigan and Maryland.
  • Michael and Mary Makosholo – first Black students to enroll at Ouachita in 1962. They were recruited from Rhodesia by President Ralph Phelps as an intentional effort to de-segregate campus.
  • Gloria Roberts Fallin – among the first three African-American students enrolled at Ouachita. Fallin graduated one year later than Michael and Mary Makosholo.
  • Reverend William A. Terry – Ouachita’s first black faculty member. He was also recently inducted into the inaugural class of the Clark County Black Hall of Fame. In addition, Reverend Terry was one of five Arkadelphians who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma.

Photo courtesy of Ouachita Alumni Relations.

  • James “Bearcat” Reynoldsde-segregated the Ouachita Tiger football team under coach Buddy Benson in 1968.
  • Katherine Hobbs – first black female student athlete. She was a three-sport all-star in high school and continued that success at Ouachita, being invited to play on the national AWISA team.
  • Lewis Shepherd – first black administrator, dean and vice president, now serving as the vice president of community and intercultural engagement and leading the Office of Multicultural Student Programs.
  • Joyce Elliot – Arkansas Senator (since 2008) and former House of Representatives member (2001-2006). Elliot is an educator and advocate for underrepresented students. She was the first Ouachita alumnus to become an Arkansas Senator and was the first vice chairperson of the Democratic Party of Arkansas.

This listing is just a handful of stories of the first 40 individuals and groups honored in this collection. 

Learning from the past

One of the greatest gifts history offers its keepers is the unique perspective to change the future. The planning committee for this project initially wanted to tell the story of school integration in the 1950s and 1960s with an emphasis on the 1964 Civil Rights Act that spurred Ouachita’s integration when other colleges, public and private, began integration much earlier.

While gathering stories, they realized that sharing the memories of their school integration was more significant than replaying the entire history of school integration in Arkansas. Through oral history projects and scanning yearbooks, the students involved in this project learned about a different time in another historical context where students arrived on campus in an unwelcoming environment that did not always want them around. Others noted stood on the shoulders of the “first” African American students, and their firsts represent taking their experience on campus to their postgraduate work and careers.

This project highlights an understanding of the past and a commitment to creating a collegiate environment where all students feel welcomed, comforted, supported and readied for success.

The public may visit the Green-Blevins Rotunda during regular school hours, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Contact the Ouachita Baptist  Sutton School of Social Sciences (870-245-5512) for special access or weekend visits.

Special thanks to Lisa Speer, Arkansas historian and Ouachita Baptist’s archivist, for her assistance in this story and providing access to photos. 

Meet the

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Keisha (Pittman) McKinney lives in Northwest Arkansas with her chicken man and break-dancing son. Keisha is passionate about connecting people and building community, seeking solutions to the everyday big and small things, and encouraging others through the mundane, hard, and typical that life often brings. She put her communications background to work as a former Non-profit Executive Director, college recruiter and fundraiser, small business trainer, and Digital Media Director at a large church in Northwest Arkansas. Now, she is using those experiences through McKinney Media Solutions and her blog @bigpittstop, which includes daily adventures, cooking escapades, #bigsisterchats, the social justice cases on her heart, and all that she is learning as a #boymom! Keisha loves to feed birds, read the stack on her nightstand, do dollar store crafts, cook recipes from her Pinterest boards, and chase everyday adventures on her Arkansas bucket list.

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