There are many prominent people buried in Forest Home Cemetery. One of them will be having a 150th birthday party on Memorial Day 2023. His name is Professor Joseph Corbin, a pioneering Black educator who founded the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Gladys Turner Finney, his grave will soon be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Gladys is a retired social worker-turned-author who has devoted her later years to honoring Corbin. This comes naturally to her because she graduated from a high school named in his honor, and she later graduated from the campus at Pine Bluff. She authored a biography of Corbin in 2017. 

Corbin was born free to formerly enslaved parents in Ohio in 1833. At the time, millions of Black people were still in bondage. He became only the second Black student to graduate from Ohio University and continued his education by earning two masters degrees from Ohio University at Athens.

During the Reconstruction period that followed the Civil War, Corbin moved to Arkansas. In 1872, he was elected Arkansas superintendent of public instruction. He saw the need to educate the 115,000 freedmen living in the state. He opened Branch Normal College in Pine Bluff, on Sept. 27, 1875 with seven students. This later became the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

When Reconstruction ended, many prominent Black citizens lost their positions as politicians and educators. Corbin was forced out of his job and retired to Chicago. He died on January 9, 1911 and was buried in Forest Home Cemetery. When Gladys learned his grave reportedly did not have a headstone, she raised funds to have one made. 

She didn’t know there was already a prominent grave marker, a large boulder bearing Corbin’s name. Nonetheless, she hosted a ceremony for Corbin on May 27, 2013, to dedicate the new headstone. U.S. Congressman Danny Davis (7th District), who also graduated from Pine Bluff, spoke at the ceremony. Shanahan’s Restaurant then hosted a luncheon. 

Gladys later set up scholarships in Corbin’s honor at Ohio University, Wright State University and the University of Arkansas. Then she turned her focus to celebrating his 150th Anniversary in Pine Bluff and Forest Park. She wanted to have his grave placed on the National Register in time for the celebration.

Gladys lives in Dayton, Ohio and needed someone to do the legwork for her in Forest Park. She mailed me all the forms that needed to be completed. The government gave us plenty of hoops to jump through, including providing maps of the gravesite, a copy of Corbin’s purchase of the lots and securing photos. I immediately reached out to the cemetery director, Deborah Clark, to start the process.

Then I brought the forms to the office of Congressman Davis to see if he could help. Finally, I enlisted the help of Carol Gulyas, secretary of the Historical Society. Carol had been successful in having IDOT post highway signs directing visitors to the Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument, which is also on the National Register. Carol took the required photographs for Gladys and we then learned she had completed the other necessary steps on her own.

We’ve done our best to honor Corbin over the years. There is a poem about him in the “Des Plaines River Anthology” and an actor portrayed him on the “Tale of the Tombstones” tour. Now we plan to hold a sesquicentennial birthday party for him at his nationally recognized grave in Forest Home. 

Joseph Corbin was not only a great man, he’s probably the only person in the cemetery with two headstones.

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.