The Board of Missions for Freedmen of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA), or the “Northern” Presbyterian Church, began opening schools for freed slaves in the South as early as the 1860s. However, no schools were started in Arkansas until 1889, when a new presbytery was established and significant numbers of African Americans from the eastern states were resettling in the state.
During the early 1890s, the Reverend A. E. Torrence, pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church, opened a parochial school for black students in Hot Springs (Garland County). He conducted it independently but did receive some aid from the Board of Missions. By 1895, there were 100 students in attendance. According to Inez Parker, while the school was never large, it was “highly regarded locally for its program of culture and quality education.”
In 1904, when the Reverend C. S. Mebane was forced to leave his post as head of the Monticello Academy in Monticello (Drew County), he came to Hot Springs and took over supervision of the school. The school’s property and equipment were not owned by the church but by Mebane. Although local residents referred to the school as Mebane Academy, Mebane himself christened it the Hot Springs Normal and Industrial Institute. Various sources describe the building, located on a hill off Whittington Avenue overlooking the north part of town, as having two or three stories. In any case, on its high elevation, it was a prominent feature of the town. By 1906, the student body, taught by Mebane and one other teacher, numbered eighty. This number had declined to forty-five by 1911.
A study done by the U.S. Office of Education in 1914 and published in 1917 indicated that the academy was an elementary school conducted in a privately owned frame building. Three of the rooms were used for classrooms, and the remainder of the building served as living quarters for the principal and the boarding students. The enrollment had increased to seventy students, fifteen of whom were boarders. Classes were taught by three African-American teachers, and Mebane’s wife was serving as the principal. Most of the funding for the academy came from the church’s Board of Missions. According to the report, the three classrooms were poorly equipped.
By 1916, there were sixty-eight students under the supervision of three teachers. Enrollment later declined into the fifties. In the early 1920s, the public school authorities in Hot Springs built a public school for black children on a nearby hill, but its one-story frame building and its educational program were dwarfed by the more prominent Mebane Academy. During the 1920s, the Board of Missions began to evaluate how many schools it could support and began to close financially struggling schools in locations where public schools were available. By the late 1920s, the board had withdrawn its funding for Mebane Academy, and it became the Hot Springs Community Station. This was the end of the structure’s role as an educational institution.
For additional information:
Jones, Thomas Jesse. Negro Education: A Study of the Private and Higher Schools for Colored People in the United States. Vol. 2. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1917.
Parker, Inez Moore. The Rise and Decline of the Program of Education for the Black Presbyterians of the United Presbyterian Church U.S.A., 1865–1970. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1977.
Nancy Snell Griffith