It appears that you're using a severely outdated version of Safari on Windows. Many features won't work correctly, and functionality can't be guaranteed. Please try viewing this website in Edge, Mozilla, Chrome, or another modern browser. Sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused!Read More about this safari issue.
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One of these areas was an outdated exhibit on former Senator John McClellan.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.
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.
Photo courtesy of Ouachita Alumni Relations.
This listing is just a handful of stories of the first 40 individuals and groups honored in this collection.
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.
Sign up for our weekly e-news.
Get stories sent straight to your inbox!
We select one featured photo per week, but we show many more in our gallery. Be sure to fill out all the fields in order to have yours selected.