“A good man is always learning,” is an old Latin Proverb. Sages and thinkers since the days of the first schools thousands of years ago have recognized the importance of education in shaping and informing the minds of students from their earliest lessons and throughout their lives. Leaders of schools and colleges play a special role in developing the culture of a learning community. One such education leader in Arkansas, John Brown Watson, became an important figure in shaping the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and strengthening its reputation as a college.
John Brown Watson’s parents had been born into slavery. After the end of the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves, his parents settled near the East Texas city of Tyler. Watson himself was born in December 1869 and named after the controversial abolitionist John Brown, who had tried to spark a slave uprising in Virginia in 1859.
Like many important figures, Watson’s path to success was never easy. He proved to be a very bright young man and attended school as often as he could. However, there were very few opportunities for any kind of education for African-Americans in East Texas at that time. In spite of his many talents, he was unable to get an education past the junior-high level.
Even though he had not even attended high school, at the age of 17 in 1887, Watson passed a proficiency test from the Smith County school board to be able to teach in the county. Though his own education was poor, Watson used his passion for learning to help others.
After two years, Watson decided to finish his own education. He enrolled at Bishop College, then a small college prep academy located in nearby Marshall. Because of his own lack of funding and his own shortcomings in his education, he did not earn a high school diploma until 1898 at the age of 28. He spent the next two years teaching to save enough money to attend a full university.
Watson enrolled at Colgate University in New York in 1900 but soon transferred to the more prestigious Brown University in Rhode Island, an Ivy-League institution. He earned his bachelors degree in 1904 and soon began work as a professor of math and science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. After four years, he took an administrative job with the Young Men’s Christian Association.
In 1923, Watson was tapped to become president of Leland College in Louisiana. The college’s original campus in New Orleans had been destroyed by a hurricane in 1915, and the institution had been adrift since that time in search of a permanent home. The college relocated to the small community of Baker, not far from Baton Rouge. It was Watson’s task to help Leland rebuild. Watson managed to secure a new campus for the college and rebuild enrollment. His efforts caught the attention of officials in Arkansas.
The Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal College in Pine Bluff was looking for a new president as it attempted to build a new campus and expand its offerings. Trustees chose Watson to be the college’s seventh president in June 1928.
The college had struggled for some time as neglect from the state level and administrative problems took their toll. As president, he oversaw the construction on the new campus and within a year, the college was expanded to become a four-year university. He founded a campus newspaper, The Arkansawyer. Watson also pushed for the education of the community as a whole, offering free night classes in everything from math and sewing to woodworking and auto repair. While the Great Depression shuttered many colleges, Watson found new opportunities to expand. New buildings were steadily constructed, thanks in part from grants federal New Deal programs, including a dorm for teachers, a gymnasium, two student dorms, and a new library. Debate teams and acting clubs began on campus. The first sports teams started under his leadership. By 1942, even with World War II sapping enrollment, there were nearly 500 students on campus and more than 60 people employed by the college. In 14 years, he had transformed the college from an institution flirting with closure to a vibrant leader in higher education.
Watson died at his home on the college campus in December 1942, just shy of his seventy-third birthday. His influence in saving the college was not forgotten. A dorm was renamed for him in 1958, while the new library was also named for him ten years later. AM&N College became the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in 1972 and is now a doctoral-degree granting university of nearly three thousand students.