LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – All this month FOX 16 will be highlighting history makers from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. This week we started with Dr. Lawrence A. Davis, Sr. and learned more about the story of 15 expelled students.
Davis was the president of Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical and Norman College, or Arkansas AM&N, which later became UAPB. According to Vice Chancellor George Cotton, Davis was beloved by the residents of Pine Bluff and Jefferson County and students at AM&N, who called him “Prexy.” He served as president from 1943 until his resignation in 1973.
Davis was 29 years old when he was named president. That made him the youngest college president in the United States. During his tenure, he oversaw the school’s 1972 transition from college to university status as part of the University of Arkansas System. Davis served one year as UAPB’s first chancellor.
Davis was among the most prominent leaders of a historically Black college or university in the country, according to Cotton. During his tenure the school not only received accreditation as a four-year college, but new new facilities were built to accommodate students, faculty, and staff including what is now the L. A. Davis, Sr. Student Union, Hazzard Gymnasium, Woodard Hall, Larrison Hall, the infirmary, two dormitories, the library and, the Fine Arts Center.
“Dr. Davis was a man of conviction and courage,” Cotton said.
In 1958, he made what Cotton called a bold decision to invite and host Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to campus for the commencement ceremony. King gave the commencement address, but it was extremely controversial at the time as this was the year following nine Black students integrating Little Rock’s Central High School.
Arkansas AM&N was punished for hosting King, according to Cotton. Later in the year, Davis traveled to the State Capitol to secure the college’s funding in the state budget. It’s said that he was lectured, bullied and demeaned for supporting King and the state legislature cut AM&N’s funding.
In the early 60s, students at AM&N launched the Pine Bluff chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. They began sit-ins in 1963.
“You can see that the seeds of the sit-ins had been sown five years before when Dr. King gave the commencement speech,” Cotton explained.
According to historians, on February 1, 1963, thirteen AM&N students started their sit-ins at the F.W. Woolworth lunch counter. Instead of serving the students, a waitress instead turned off the lights. For three hours, the students sat in darkness. At closing time, they left. The next day — and for days after that — they returned, and their numbers grew. After about a week and a half, all of Pine Bluff, Black and white, had learned of the sit-ins.
Chancellor Davis met with a protesting student and told her that he was adamantly committed to their cause and would quit his job rather than discipline her. He also wrote an open letter threatening suspension for any student who participated in a sit-in. Davis ultimately made the choice to punish students for actions he privately praised. 15 students were expelled.
Around the time of the sit-ins, the legislature was in session in Little Rock. Lawmakers were passing the budget that would fund AM&N.
“It’s believed that if Davis did not toe the racist line, the legislature was likely to eliminate the college’s funding, hurting all of the approximately 2,200 students who attended at the time,” Cotton said.
Being expelled didn’t stop the students. On February 28, when the protestors showed up for the 28th consecutive sit-in, they discovered that store management had removed the stools and completely covered the lunch counter, rendering it unusable for a sit-in, but also for serving lunch. They’d shut down the business. The protestors shifted their attention to other local businesses and were eventually arrested for their peaceful protests and denied food in jail.
Just in time for its 60th anniversary, the commemorative F.W. Woolworth “Sit-Ins” display will debut as part of the University Museum and Cultural Center’s permanent collection.