One year before the Little Rock Central High desegregation crisis, the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) enrolled its first African American student, Thomas Embry, for the first summer session of 1956.

Embry entered UCA (then Arkansas State Teachers College) with no fanfare, riots or protests.  It was a peaceful, quiet event, the antithesis of what took place at Little Rock Central in 1957. 

Dr. H.B. Hardy of Conway was director of placement at UCA in 1956, and when asked how integration was implemented at UCA he stated, “It went very smoothly, it was quietly done and Thomas Embry made application, was admitted and started attending class with the white students.”   

The only mention of desegregation at the time was in the form of a news release issued by the school after Embry began attending classes.

The news release appeared again in 2006, in the “Yesterdays” column from 50 years ago in the Log Cabin Democrat.  It stated, “A 20-year-old Conway Negro youth, who became the first member of his race to enter Arkansas State Teachers College as an undergraduate student, hoped to be the first to receive a degree.” 

“He was Thomas Embry, son of Mr. and Mrs. Odell Embry.  Young Embry graduated from Pine Street High School in 1952 and entered Arkansas Baptist in Little Rock the same summer.  He later enlisted in the Army and was discharged last winter.  He attended Philander Smith College in Little Rock during the spring semester of 1956.  He enrolled in ASTC at the opening of the first summer session last month.”

We may never have known when desegregation had taken place at UCA were it not for the news release issued by the school announcing the admission of Thomas Embry.

Mr. Embry did not become the first of his race to graduate from UCA, as the press release said he had hoped.  He moved to Detroit, Mich., and became an entrepreneur, and later in life became a minister.

The first African American to graduate from UCA was Joseph Norman Manley, who enrolled at UCA in the fall of 1956.    

Manley was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Manley of Conway and graduated from Pine Street High School in 1954.  He enrolled at Howard University, in Washington, D.C., for the 1954-1955 academic year and transferred the next year to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff for the 1955-1956 academic year.

He had two years of college education credits to transfer when he entered UCA and was able to graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in May 1958.

After graduating from UCA, Mr. Manley received a Doctorate of Optometry from Ohio State University in 1961 and a Master of Science degree from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in 1967.  He practiced optometry in Little Rock and was the Assistant Director of the Arkansas Comprehensive Health Planning Program.

Dr. Manley’s optometry office was located in the University Tower Building in Little Rock.  Sadly, he was stricken by a serious malady and passed away suddenly on May 22, 1974, at the age of 38. 

After the color barrier was broken in 1956 the number of minority students enrolling each year at UCA grew slowly up until 1970.

We do not know exactly how many minority students enrolled each year from 1956 to 1973 because records involving a student’s race were not kept until 1974, according to a UCA self-study that was published in 1979.

However, due to unofficial estimates about the racial makeup of the student body recorded in The Echo (UCA student newspaper), and information provided by those on campus at the time, the growth of  minority students was apparently slow up until 1970.  

In 1970 The Echo estimated there were approximately 200 African Americans enrolled, but did not comment on other minority groups or their numbers.  UCA had 4,351 students that year and by using The Echo’s estimate of 200 African American students, they made up 4.6% of the student body.  

In 1979, UCA published a self-study report that was submitted to the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, titled, “UCA, The Decade of Tradition, Precedent and Vision, 1969-1979.  In regard to UCA’s efforts to recruit minority students the report stated, “Consistent with and in response to the University commitment to increase the racial diversity of the student population, the Admissions Office has identified those high schools in the state having a high percentage of minority students and has intensified its recruitment efforts in those areas.  The annual increase of minority students in the freshman class would attest, at least in part, to the success of those efforts.” 

During the decade of the 1970s, the number of minority students and the percentage of minority students to total enrollment increased on a regular basis.  By 1974 minority students made up 8.2% of the student body and in 1978 there were 5,349 students enrolled at UCA with 604 or 11.3% being minority students.  The growth of minority students continued and ten years later, in 1988, there were 827 minority students enrolled at UCA which made up 12.3% of UCA’s total enrollment. 

In addition to the steady increase of minorities there were other factors that were noted in the self-study report that was submitted to the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools in 1979.

“The 1978 profile reflects a student population which is increasingly larger in size, increasingly female, increasingly minority, increasingly commuter in nature, increasingly part-time in study and increasingly choosing majors and occupations which emerge from the multipurpose thrust of the University concept.”

As the number of minority students and African Americans in particular increased, so did opportunities for the creation of African American fraternities and sororities.

The first fraternity founded by African Americans at UCA was Omega Phi Mu.  It was created in 1970 as a local fraternity.  However, its members wanted to become associated with a national fraternity and on March 18, 1972, the members of Omega Phi Mu were chartered by Omega Psi Phi.

This author had an interview in February 2008 with Anthony Burks, president of Omega Psi Phi, who stated, “Thirty-six hours of completed course work, a 2.5 grade point average, and being in good standing with UCA are necessary to pledge Omega Psi Phi.  Additionally, Omega Psi Phi has been instrumental in assisting other African American fraternities and sororities in becoming established.”

Omega Psi Phi, a social fraternity, also engages in projects that support the community. In regard to humanitarian work, Carson Knowlton, the current president of Omega Psi Phi, stated in an interview with this author, “Omega Psi Phi currently participates in the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program each year.  We also adopted an Alternative Class at Carl Stuart Middle School and we visited their classroom and spoke with the students.  We later invited them to campus and we plan to do that each year.  Statistics show that bringing students on campus greatly increases their chances of going to college.” 

The first African American sorority founded at UCA was Alpha Kappa Alpha, in 1974.

In February 2008, this author interviewed Marcia Hegwood, president of Alpha Kappa Alpha, who stated, “The Theta Mu Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha was the first Greek letter organization established by African American women on the UCA campus.  Alpha Kappa Alpha was chartered on February 24, 1974, with 14 women being initiated.” 

According to Chandria Marks, a senior from Camden and current president of Alpha Kappa Alpha, “We have several initiatives we follow and our signature program is ‘Emerging Young Leaders.’  That program is focused on helping young girls in middle school to become prepared for college.

“The women of Alpha Kappa Alpha mentor not just African American girls but any female needing assistance in preparation for college. We meet with the middle school girls at least once per semester for an all day event, but, we also meet with them on a regular basis to engage in other humanitarian projects.”

There are a total of nine National Pan-Hellenic Council (meaning traditionally African American) organizations in existence and they are known as the “Divine Nine,” and seven are active at UCA.

The four men’s National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) fraternities are Alpha Phi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi and Phi Beta Sigma.  The women’s NPHC sororities are Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta and Zeta Phi Beta.     

Current enrollment figures show the progress that has been made since 1956 in increasing the number of minority students at UCA.  The most recent enrollment figures are those for fall 2011.

The total enrollment at UCA was 11,163 students and 1,689 or 15.1% were African American students.  African Americans constituted the largest minority group and made up 69.6% of all minority students.

The desegregation of the UCA faculty and other topics concerning minority students will appear in future articles. 

Author’s Note:  Sources for this article include The Echo, Log Cabin Democrat, Dr. H. B. Hardy, UCA Fact Book 1991-1992, UCA Office of Institutional Research, UCA Office of the Registrar, “UCA, The Decade of Tradition, Precedent and Vision, 1969-1979: A Self-Study Report of The University of Central Arkansas,” “The Centennial History of the University of Central Arkansas” by Jimmy Bryant, Teressa Bollinger, Wendy Holbrook, Chandria Marks and Carson Knowlton.