Black History Month: Bear Trailblazers of the Past

Black History Month draws its origins from 1926 when Carter Woodson organized Negro History Week, a celebration that honored the contributions of African Americans. Over the decades, the celebration of Black history and culture evolved into a month-long celebration, highlighting not only nationally-recognized figures but also those who made lasting impacts in local communities. In the spirit of Woodson, the University of Central Arkansas is featuring six Bear trailblazers who paved the way for future generations to learn and succeed at UCA. 

Headshot of Embrey

Thomas Embry, The Scroll, 1957

Thomas Embry

Thomas Embry was the first Black student to attend UCA. A Conway native, Embry graduated from the all-Black Pine Street High School in 1952 and enlisted in the U.S. Army. After his discharge in 1955, he attended Little Rock’s Philander Smith College before attending UCA, then called the Arkansas State Teacher College. He first stepped on campus for the 1956 summer session. However, he did not graduate and later moved to Michigan, launching a career as a minister and an entrepreneur.


Headshot of Manley

Joseph Norman Manley, The Scroll, 1957

Joseph Norman Manley

Joseph Norman Manley has the honor of being the first Black alumnus. A Pine Street High School graduate in 1954, he enrolled in the 1956 fall semester and graduated from UCA with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1958. He received a Master of Science degree from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, then a doctorate of optometry from Ohio State University. He practiced optometry in Little Rock and later served as assistant director of the Arkansas Comprehensive Health Planning Program.


Mable Anderson, The Scroll, 1970

Mable Anderson 

In 1969, UCA opened the Southwest Center for Early Childhood Personnel Development, hiring a new group of faculty members to train the next generation of childcare professionals. Mable Anderson joined the staff as UCA’s first Black faculty member. She taught at the university for only the 1969-70 academic year but broke a significant barrier. UCA added two Black faculty members the following year—Marion Ross and Clyde Penny. 


Marion Ross headshot

Marion Ross, The Scroll, 1980

Marion Ross

Marion Ross served as the university’s first chair of the occupational therapy department, beginning a 21-year tenure at UCA in 1970. Ross had a long career in occupational therapy, serving as a professor at Ohio State University and a working professional at several health care facilities. In 1978, Ross became the first African American to be elected president of the Faculty Council, a predecessor to the Faculty Senate representing faculty interests in administrative decisions.  


Willie Hardin headshot

Willie Hardin, The Scroll, 1974

Willie Hardin

As a 30-year employee at Torreyson Library, Willie Hardin oversaw an evolution of how UCA students learned. He joined the university in 1973 as the head of interlibrary loan and an instructor at the university’s library science academic department. At that time, students used a card catalog and manually flipped through the library’s inventory.  

That changed when Hardin was named director of the library in 1985—the first Black administrator of Torreyson—and transitioned the facility to the state’s first automated library in Arkansas. Outside the library in 1996, employees packed stacks of cards into the back of a hearse, adorned with signs reading “Farewell Card Catalog.” This moment marked a crowning achievement for Hardin, who dedicated the rest of his career to serving students. He retired in 2010, leaving the university as the associate vice president of academic development. 


Jones headshot

Henry Jones Jr., The Scroll, 1976

Henry Jones Jr. 

Henry Jones Jr., practiced law and was a pillar of the community when Arkansas Gov. David Pryor appointed him as the first Black UCA Board of Trustees member in 1975. He volunteered his time with multiple civic organizations and served as a U.S. magistrate judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas for nearly 30 years. Among his service to UCA, Jones also served on the Baum Gallery Advisory Board.