Central College for Women

Founded in 1892, Central College operated in Conway (Faulkner County) until 1950, educating female students and supported by the Arkansas Southern Baptist Association.

Efforts by Arkansas Baptists to open a college to educate women date to the 1880s. In 1890, the state convention authorized Colonel G. W. Bruce of Conway to chair a committee to select a location and open the institution. Bids for the college were received from Bentonville (Benton County), Conway, Ozark (Franklin County), and Rogers (Benton County). Reporting back to the convention the following year, Bruce and the committee stated that Conway delivered the best offer. Conway offered the committee more than $27,000 in pledges, ten acres of land, and a completed building by January 1, 1893, and argued that the central location of the city within the state was a positive. The college opened several weeks before the convention met, with classes beginning on October 3, 1892. While construction of a $20,000 building was underway, classes met at Conway Baptist Church. The committee selected a temporary board of trustees who hired the Reverend Charles Williams as the president of the institution and chartered the institution as Central College.

The board leased the college to Williams and allowed him to choose the faculty and manage all aspects of the institution, with board approval. Faculty members were required to be members of a Baptist church. Williams served for one year as president before being replaced by Seaton Thompson in 1893. He increased the enrollment at the college to more than 100 by the second year of operation before resigning in 1895.

John Gardner Lile assumed the presidency after Thompson and served until 1901. His administration saw the completion of the third floor of the main building and the addition of a pipe organ in the chapel. Continuing the practice of leasing the college to the president, Lile declined to serve past his initial six-year term due to a financial loss. W. W. Rivers took control of the college in 1901 and worked with the board to raise funds for the institution, overseeing several improvements to the campus. Upon his retirement in 1911 from the presidency, John W. Conger, the founding president of Ouachita Baptist College (now Ouachita Baptist University) in Arkadelphia (Clark County), took the position.

Conger increased the enrollment from 129 the year before his arrival to 165 in 1911. He also oversaw the discontinuation of primary and secondary education programs, focusing the limited resources of the college on post-secondary education. In 1912, the citizens of Conway assumed the debt of the college in exchange for the state convention agreeing to keep the institution in the city. Conger continued to serve until 1920, when a total of 216 students enrolled. Upon his retirement, Conger was named president emeritus and continued to receive a salary.

Conger’s replacement was professor Doak Campbell, a graduate of Ouachita Baptist College. He led an effort to reduce the course offerings and transform the institution into a junior college. This led to a strengthening of the academics and membership in the American Association of Colleges and Schools in 1922. The college achieved accreditation with the North Central Association in 1925, maintaining accreditation until 1948. Campbell served until 1928 and later served as the president of Florida State College for Women and was the founding president of Florida State University.

Serving as president for a single year after Campbell was former University of Arkansas (UA) professor and former governor of the state Charles Hillman Brough. James Sterling Rogers, the secretary of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, assumed the presidency in 1928, serving until 1940. During his time at the college, he maintained the enrollment with little support from the denomination. O. J. Wade and E. S. Preston both served for three years between 1940 and 1946. Although monies from the denomination again supported the college during Preston’s term as president, the institution acquired about $10,000 of debt. R. L. Whipple served as president from 1946 to 1947.

In 1947, the board of the college voted to move the institution to Camp Joseph T. Robinson in North Little Rock (Pulaski County) and to make the college co-educational. This move proved to be unsuccessful, and the college closed in 1950. The campus of the former college was sold to the Arkansas Missionary Baptist Association in 1952 and became the home of Conway Baptist College, now known as Central Baptist College.

Little remained of the former campus by the beginning of the twenty-first century. Four columns, erected by the classes of 1909, 1910, and 1917, remain on the campus of Central Baptist College. Old Main, constructed in the 1890s, was demolished in 1984.

For additional information:
Bender, Melvin. “The Founding of Conway Baptist College (1952).” Faulkner Facts and Fiddlings 37, no. 3–4 (1995): 55–67.

“Central College Columns Dismantled, Restored.” Faulkner Facts and Fiddlings 30, no. 3–4 (1988): 26.

Robinson, Corinne. “Central College Reunion, 1980.” Faulkner Facts and Fiddlings 22, no. 1–4 (1980): 21–29.

———. “Early Days of Central College,” Faulkner Facts and Fiddlings 8, no. 3 (1966): 51–56.

Rogers, James. History of Arkansas Baptists: Centennial Convention. Little Rock: Arkansas Baptist State Convention, 1948.

Smith, Glenn. “Speech and Theatre Education at Central College.” Faulkner Facts and Fiddlings 26, no. 1 (1984): 2–6.

David Sesser
Henderson State University

Last Updated: 04/19/2022