Ouachita Baptist College opened its doors on September 6, 1886, in Arkadelphia, Arkansas (Clark County). Situated on a bluff overlooking the Ouachita River, the college was named for its proximity both to the river and to the Ouachita Mountains to the west.
The establishment of Ouachita Baptist College, which gained university status in 1965, resulted from efforts of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention (ABSC) to have a college-level, educational facility for ministers and laypeople in the state. The Convention, which formed in 1848, created several schools in the state to educate young people prior to the Civil War. Two of those schools were located in Arkadelphia – the Arkadelphia Institute and the Arkadelphia Female Institute, both of which opened in 1851. However, both of the institutes offered high school-level work only.
By the late 1850s, the ABSC began earnestly pursuing a Baptist college for the state. A good start was made at fundraising by the Convention, but the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 disrupted efforts. The Convention would not take up this work again until the early 1880s.
In 1885, the ABSC supported the recommendation to establish a Baptist college in Arkansas, but a location for the college was yet undecided. A number of towns vied to be chosen, offering land and financial support to the Convention, including Clarksville, Morrilton, and Little Rock. The Red River Baptist Association, which encompassed Arkadelphia, offered the Convention both a tract of land containing a large building and $10,000 towards a goal of $50,000 for establishing the college. On April 9, 1886, the Education Commission of the ABSC chose Arkadelphia as the site for its Baptist College.
Ouachita began classes in September 1886 in the building formerly used by the Arkadelphia Baptist High School, administered by the Red River Baptist Association and donated to the ABSC for the college. Originally, the building housed the state’s first Institute for the Blind, which moved to Little Rock in 1868. John William Conger (1857-1924) served as the college’s first president. More than 100 students entered Ouachita in the fall 1886, and enrollment more than doubled by the end of the first year.
For more information on Ouachita Baptist University’s history, we recommend:
Mike Arrington, Ouachita Baptist University: the first 100 years. Little Rock, AR: August House, 1985.
Jake Simmons, “Ouachita Baptist University: In the Beginning,” Clark County Historical Journal (2004): 97-105.