Not too many people on campus are familiar with the name James McGahee.
There is not an administration building or award named after him. His name is not on the plaque of pioneering black students whose presence represented the true beginning of diversity.
But new evidence recovered last spring has revealed a vague sketch of McGahee, the first black student to be registered for classes at the UA.
The university has long promoted Silas Hunt’s admittance into the UA law school in 1948 as the first time a black student was allowed to study on campus. But according to the research led by graduate student Geoff Jensen, the recorded “first” was during the UA maiden year in 1872.
“At this point, the paper is still going through the editing process,” Jensen said of his research, which he hopes to print as a scholarly paper in The Arkansas Quarterly after its completion.
“We’re trying to make sure it’s seaworthy,” he said.
The admittance of McGahee isn’t exactly a secret. His name appears in the list of students attending the university in the first report of the Arkansas Industrial University, the original name of the UA.
Several academics in and around the UA have long suspected that Hunt was not the first black student at the university, but that has never been the problem.
Bits and pieces of the past have pointed researchers in various directions, but it has been difficult creating an accurate timeline and environment of the past.
“The hardest part, I would say, has been the frustration that there is stuff out there that we’re just not going to know,” Jensen said.
What Jensen does know is that McGahee was admitted into the UA in 1872. His acceptance into the university was thanks in part to the Land-Grant College Act of 1862, in which states were given federal land for establishing colleges.
The act, also known as the Morrill Act, and its sister act in 1890 required land-grant colleges to not discriminate in the admission of students.
McGahee was registered as a student for two years before his name disappeared from the UA records and newspaper clippings.
Jensen has not been alone in the hunt for history, though. The UA gave the task of discovering the first black student to Jensen in May 2006, after research by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette led to digging deeper into the issue .
Tom Dillard, head of the special collections department in Mullins Library, and his staff have also been an integral part in the creation of the past. Much of the material Jensen has used in his research came from “minutes of [UA board] meetings, newspaper articles and odds and ends that just fell into Jensen’s lap,” Dillard said.
“A lot of it is just luck. Luck plays a big part,” Dillard said. “There was no one systematic way of gathering information. Most of the information now is filling in the gaps, but that’s very difficult … it would be wonderful to say we could pull out a file on the first black student. We’re forced to get the information from skimpy sources.”
While McGahee has now been established as the actual first black student to attend class at the UA, the university has yet to prepare anything in his honor, said Charlie Alison, UA managing editor for catalogs, Web and special projects.
The many researchers and participants in the project agree – the importance is not who was first. The importance, they said, is developing a greater understanding of university life in Arkansas’ tumultuous history.
“Understanding helps perspective,” said Gordon Morgan, a sociology professor at the UA. Morgan has long questioned the factual information regarding the first black student on campus.
He has written a book, “The Edge of Campus: A Journal of the Black Experience at the University of Arkansas” with his wife Izola Preston Morgan, which chronicles the black experience on campus.
“Silas Hunt says less about Hunt and more about the conservativeness of the UA. It’s a misplaced emphasis. [We] need to look at what was wrong with an administration that would not allow qualified students to attend,” Morgan said.
“When the paper comes out, it’ll give you a good feeling of the time period,” Jensen said. “Congressional reconstruction, presidential reconstruction, all this was happening and there were a lot of changes.”
Dillard echoed the same sentiment and said that besides the physical troubles of getting to the university with poor roads and lack of money, newly freed slaves and students had to encounter an intricate “kind of climate” that researchers are still trying to understand.
Researchers need to focus not necessarily on the accomplishments of individuals, but on an environment that would have an almost 80-year gap between the first black student and the first recognized black student, Gordon said.
Primary sources gathered from various newspapers reveal a Northwest Arkansas that was blatantly racist at the time the UA was founded. The importance of the changes between McGahee, Hunt, and Hunt’s admission to the present are evident in the increasing literature and recorded impact of black and minority students on campus.
Perhaps that is why the UA named Silas Hunt as “the first black student in modern times to attend a major southern public university.”
Since Hunt’s admittance, equality has increased exponentially. In 1962, two black students won a federal case to desegregate the dorms on campus. By the 1970s, the first official black organization on campus, Blacks Americans for Democracy, was publishing a semester periodical, BAD Times.
Black students now make up about 5 percent of the total population on campus with 11 Registered Student Organizations dedicated to promoting black culture.
– Arkansas Traveler, Oct. 6, 2006
[Original piece available here.]