Finally, a headstone for African-American education pioneer

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By John Rice

Columnist / Staff reporter


I haven't met Gladys Turner but I'm already a great admirer. Gladys is an 87-year-old social worker from Dayton, Ohio who took it upon herself to honor a pioneering African-American educator.

Joseph Carter Corbin was elected Arkansas State Superintendent of Public Education in 1872. He served as chairman of what became the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and founded what is now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Following his extraordinary career, Professor Corbin moved to Chicago.

Gladys grew up in Arkansas, where she graduated from Corbin High School and the university at Pine Bluff. This "connection to the professor" inspired Gladys to spend years researching the great man's life. Corbin died in Pine Bluff on Jan. 9, 1911. The maddening mystery was: Where was he interred? "I spent an enormous amount of time trying to find out where he was buried."

Lo and behold, Professor Corbin, his wife Mary and two sons, John and William, are buried in an unmarked plot at Forest Home Cemetery. After she discovered the graves, Gladys launched the Joseph Carter Corbin Headstone Project. Once the funds were raised, she had the stone made in Dayton. Frank Troost is arranging to have it placed at Forest Home.

Congressman Danny Davis, a 1961 graduate of the university at Pine Bluff, will speak at the ceremony honoring Professor Corbin. It will take place on Memorial Day, at noon, at the Corbin family plot. Back on March 25, the Village Council presented a resolution honoring Professor Corbin. It also praised Gladys for her tireless research.

Corbin was born in Chillocothe, Ohio on March 26, 1833. He was only 17 when he enrolled at Ohio University. He received a bachelor's degree in art and returned to earn masters degrees in 1856 and 1889. Corbin migrated to Little Rock in 1872 and was elected superintendent. He proposed that a college for poor classes be established at Pine Bluff. He advocated for teaching classics to the African-American students but the political establishment insisted they only receive vocational training. Corbin was forced out as superintendent but continued his career as a high school principal. After retiring, he moved with his wife to the South Side of Chicago. On Aug. 3, 1909, he purchased the plot at Forest Home for $125.

Gladys finally solved this mystery when she read an interview with Corbin's daughter conducted shortly after her father's death. She said her parents were buried in Chicago. Gladys discovered his wife, Mary Jean was buried in Forest Home and, sure enough, the professor was right next to her.

Gladys is as feisty as they come. Though she retired from her job as a social worker for the VA, she seems to be in perpetual motion. She's an active member of her socially-progressive church and volunteers at the local historical society. Every time I call her, she's working in her garden. She's taking the Megabus to Chicago for the big day. If you come to the ceremony, you can meet Gladys and hear about the remarkable man described on his headstone as "Father of Higher Education for African-Americans in Arkansas."

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Steven Backman  

Posted: May 17th, 2013 11:43 PM

Great story John! A wonderful ending for the Professor!

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