If it weren’t for historians like Gladys Turner Finney, we wouldn’t know a hero of black history is buried here in Forest Park. Gladys is tireless in her efforts to publicize her hero, Professor Joseph Corbin, the African American founder of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. She hosted a ceremony at Forest Home Cemetery, dedicating a headstone for Corbin, on Memorial Day 2013.
Gladys was unaware that the grave already had an imposing headstone because the cemetery had no record of it. Believing that Corbin’s grave was unmarked, she raised funds to place a brand new one honoring the “Father of Higher Education for African-Americans in Arkansas.”
About 60 people attended the dedication, including many alumni who traveled from Arkansas. The keynote speaker, Congressman Danny Davis, noted that if Professor Corbin hadn’t founded the university, Davis and his six siblings would never have had the opportunity for college educations. The son of sharecroppers, Davis was dirt poor but Corbin made college affordable.
Honoring Corbin at Forest Home was only a small part of Gladys’ efforts. She was also busy writing his biography. Her book, Joseph Carter Corbin, was recently published to good reviews and solid sales. The book has also been nominated for an award in Gladys’ home state of Ohio.
In her hometown of Dayton, Gladys started the Joseph Corbin Memorial Scholarship Fund. She recently received a letter announcing another donation. “In the heart of winter,” Gladys declared, “it’s taken on a seed of its own.”
It will still be the heart of winter when Gladys celebrates Corbin during a program at her College Hill Community Church, on Feb. 25. She is giving it a Forest Park touch. A reenactor, costumed like Corbin, will read his soliloquy from the Historical Society’s “Des Plaines River Anthology.” In the passage, Corbin speaks of becoming the third African American student to walk the campus of Ohio University. He earned a BA and two master’s degrees there. The man learned eight languages, including Danish!
After graduation, Corbin moved to Arkansas and rose to become the state’s superintendent of public instruction. He achieved his dream of starting a college for Arkansas’ black students, where he taught Latin and Greek. The school was intended to teach the poor and Corbin wanted them to learn the classics. His rivals insisted that black students should only receive vocational training.
After being forced out as superintendent, Corbin taught high school, before retiring to the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. He left his legacy behind in Arkansas and Gladys was one of the students who benefitted. After her graduation from Joseph Corbin High School, she earned her degree in social work at the university he founded. She enjoyed a long career as a social worker at the VA hospital in Dayton.
At the age of 83, Gladys is as feisty as ever. She has nominated Corbin for a U.S. postage stamp every year for the past decade. She said she will not rest until the postal service issues the stamp.
In the meantime, Gladys should be proud of what she has accomplished. Of the 680,000 people buried in Forest Park, Professor Corbin is the only one with two headstones.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries. Jrice1038@aol.com