In the 1880s, Arkadelphia was an ambitious community looking to its future. And the city decided that its future lay in education.
Ouachita Baptist College had opened in 1886 on the grounds of the former Arkansas School for the Blind with additional donations of land and money from the community. In the meantime, the decade-old Central Collegiate Institute was looking to move from its birthplace in Altus, situated between Russellville and Fort Smith.
As Central Collegiate was founded by the Methodist church, Clark County-area Methodists lobbied the college and the state church conference to move the college to Arkadelphia. Residents spared no expense in their efforts to become the college’s new home. By 1889, land was secured, and residents raised an astonishing $30,000 (about $798,000 in 2016 dollars) to convince the college to choose Arkadelphia. In spite of the earnest effort, in 1890, Central Collegiate not only turned down the city but changed its name to Hendrix College and relocated to Conway instead.
Undaunted, Arkadelphia residents decided to start their own college. The state Methodist conference agreed to let Arkadelphia residents start a new Methodist college in the city. With money already raised, a board of trustees was established for Arkansas Methodist College, with nine acres on the north side of town bought from Harriet Barkman.
One noted early trustee was Charles Christopher Henderson. Henderson was a colorful figure from Missouri having earned success in the meat-packing business in St. Louis before moving to Arkadelphia in 1879. Though not a veteran, he was often called "captain." He had bought an impressive home not far from the original campus and donated generously to the college.
The school began in September 1890 with one hundred ten students enrolled. Though the property for the college had been purchased in April, no facilities were ready for the incoming students. As a result, the classes for the first semester were held in Arkadelphia public school buildings and out-of-town students were housed in private residences throughout the community.
Both men and women were allowed to attend the college, which offered both bachelors degrees and masters degrees. A college preparatory program was also established for younger students to be trained to enter college classes in the future. By 1893, the main building was completed, housing the library, classrooms, administrative offices, and the women’s dormitory.
In 1904, in appreciation for Henderson’s generosity, Arkansas Methodist College changed its name to Henderson College. Though reportedly touched by the gesture, Henderson was not able to stay in Arkadelphia. Beset by breathing problems, he sold his properties in Arkadelphia and moved to West Texas in 1911, believing that the dry air would help his health recover. His home, a prominent landmark in Arkadelphia, was sold to the college in 1979.
In 1911, college trustees honored Henderson’s friend and business partner, Walter William Brown, by adding his name to the college, rechristening it Henderson-Brown College.
After a pre-World War I peak of 300 students, enrollment steadily declined. Concerned with the expense of two Methodist colleges, church leaders by 1929 considered consolidating both Hendrix and Henderson-Brown into one campus in Little Rock. Students and Arkadelphia leaders, however, refused to consider the move. However, their options were limited.
At the time, Gov. Harvey Parnell was attempting to expand public education in the state. As attempts to keep the college open increased, the state reached out. In 1929, the state formally took possession of Henderson-Brown and reoriented it as a state college. That fall, the school welcomed its newest freshman class as Henderson State Teachers College. The college soon reversed its downward trends and expanded rapidly. In 1975, the state gave the institution its modern name of Henderson State University.