OAK PARK, IL. – “Joseph Carter Corbin is not well known, but the state (of Arkansas) and the United States owes him a national debt,” said Dr. Gladys Turner-Finney as she convened the Headstone Dedication for University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB) founding father J.C. Corbin on Memorial Day. Held at Forest Home Cemetery where Corbin is interred, several alumni were joined by city leaders and friends to witness and participate in the historic occasion.
“Today is a one-of-a-kind celebration to pay tribute to a one-of-a-kind person,” said Turner-Finney.
Born March 26, 1833 in Chillicothe, Ohio, Joseph Carter Corbin was an American Educator, scholar, linguist, mathematician, and musician. At the age of seventeen, he enrolled at Ohio University and three years later received the B. A. degree in Art. Later, he would earn two master’s degrees from Ohio University (1856 and 1889), making him one of Ohio University’s most scholarly graduates of the mid-19th Century.
Corbin migrated to Arkansas in 1872 as a reporter for the Arkansas Republican. Later that year, he was elected State Superintendent of Public Education. In this position, he served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the newly-formed Arkansas Industrial University (now the University of Arkansas). It was during this time that he recommended a college “for the education of the poorer classes.” In 1875, Corbin became founder and principal of Branch Normal College (predecessor of AM&N College and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) where he served until 1902. He was a leader in the public education movement helping to begin what is now called the Arkansas Education Association and was an active member of the Prince Hall Masons in Arkansas. Corbin died January 9, 1911, in Pine Bluff and was interred January 14, 1911 at Waldheim German Cemetery, now Forest Home. The cemetery was also a Native American Burial ground and is resting place to the likes of the parents of Earnest Hemingway, The Haymarket Martyrs and other local heroes.
Spearheading the research it took to find his resting place, Dr. Gladys Turner-Finney is a graduate of the J.C. Corbin Laboratory School that was once located on the Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal (AM&N) College campus. She subsequently graduated from AM&N and is a historian in her own right. A member of the African Americans of Miami Valley (Ohio), Dr. Turner-Finney thought it would be interesting to write about Corbin since he was an Ohio native.
“Little did I know in 2008 that I would be here today,” said Turner-Finney during the dedication. “I was merely researching an article on Professor Corbin for the African-American Genealogy Society of Miami Valley.”
Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone issued a resolution honoring the accomplishments of Corbin and noted that he is also a member of the Freemasons and was born 100 years from the date Corbin received his first master’s degree (1856).
Tony Burroughs, noted genealogist and the gentleman that found Corbin’s resting place, emphasized the importance of learning about our ancestors. He found Corbin by locating the gravesite of his wife Mary Jane – she and two of his sons are buried on the same family plot where his newly erected headstone is located. With ancestors buried in the cemetery dating back to 1899, he had deep ties to the importance of the event. The grave marker merely completes the cycle of Corbin’s life 102 years after his death that will cause someone to look into his life and perhaps be inspired to become an educator as well.
“We owe our ancestors a debt of thanks by tracing their lives and marking their graves,” said Burroughs. “This marker will be a constant reminder of J.C. Corbin and his accomplishments.”
Chicago Congressman and AM&N alumnus Danny Davis congratulated Dr. Turner-Finney for her vision and recalled the conditions Corbin withstood to establish a college during Reconstruction after the Civil War and was appreciative of his foresight.
“I agree with Dr. Finney that [Corbin] deserves a place of recognition much greater and much higher than we have come to know him in the annals of education.”
Chicago alumni chapter president Jackie Cason shares the same birthdate as Corbin and was elated to take part in the historic moment. “The honor was long overdue,” said Cason. “Had the school not been established, a lot of us would not be where we are today.”
Present also were Mrs. Alvera Brown-Goldsby, Mrs. Linda McDowell and Carla Coleman, chairperson of The Black History Commission of Arkansas. Dr. Turner-Finney credited them along with Mr. Henri Linton, who was unable to attend for being with her since the initiation of the project. The Illinois chapter of the Freemasons also honored Corbin with a resolution along with wreaths from the organization and the UAPB/AM&N National Alumni Association.
“I want people to share information [about Corbin] with other people, particularly young people,” said Turner-Finney at the conclusion of the event. “I want them to know there are people who are worthy of emulation that achieve against all odds and leave a lasting legacy of service and sacrifice for the good of other people. We have better lives today because of [Corbin].”
Sponsored by the Joseph Carter Corbin Headstone Project, the Black History Commission of Arkansas, UAPB/AM&N Alumni and friends of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, the inscription under Corbin’s name reads, “Founder of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Father of Higher Education for African-Americans in Arkansas. Thanks for the gift of education to countless generations.”