Emma Camille Riley (1879–1968)
Emma C. Riley was an educator, public servant, and philanthropist who left her mark on Arkansas state government—and on what is now Ouachita Baptist University, as one of the institution’s major benefactors of her time.
Emma Camille Riley was born on February 26, 1879, in Water Valley, Mississippi. She was the youngest child of William H. Riley, who was a farmer, and Arminda Caroline Sumner Riley. When Riley was about three, her parents relocated to Arkansas, near Emmet (Nevada and Hempstead Counties). Riley graduated from public school in Hempstead County and pursued a college education from both Ouachita Baptist and Central College for Women, working as a teacher around Arkansas in summers and during alternate school years to pay tuition. In 1902, she graduated from Central College for Women in Conway (Faulkner County) with an AB degree. By 1920, Riley’s parents had relocated to El Dorado (Union County), where she also maintained a home for the rest of her life.
In 1919, Riley left the field of education for a career in state government. Jim G. Ferguson—who was commissioner of mines, manufactures and agriculture—originally employed Riley in January 1919 to serve as secretary and clerk in his department. In January 1921, Riley became chief clerk for Secretary of State Ira C. Hopper. Riley worked in the Secretary of State’s Office until her retirement in 1935, eventually becoming the first woman to hold the position of assistant to the Secretary of State in Arkansas.
During her time in the Secretary of State’s Office, Riley became a friend, confidante, and traveling companion of U.S. Senator Hattie W. Caraway. According to one biography of Riley, the two toured much of the continental United States together, as well as Alaska and Hawaii. Riley reportedly had many friends in the Arkansas General Assembly and found herself drawn into the political arena. In 1928 and again in 1932, she served as a delegate to the Democratic National Conventions in Houston and Chicago, respectively.
Following her retirement from the state, Riley remained active in Little Rock (Pulaski County), where she maintained a residence in the Hotel Marion from 1936 until her death. She was a member of Little Rock’s Women’s City Club (forerunner of the Junior League), and Business and Professional Women, as well as what later became the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts and Delta Kappa Gamma society for women educators. She also served as vice president of the Marion Hotel Coffee Club, which sponsored various charities. One biographer wrote of Riley, “No one in the state knows more about what is going on or has more friends. And there are few people who know more good stories, and none who can tell them better!”
Riley was also a dedicated Baptist, and Ouachita Baptist College played an important role in her education and in that of several generations of her family members. Riley served on Ouachita’s board of trustees from 1945 to 1967. Ouachita named Riley a Distinguished Alumna by special action of the Board of Trustees in 1957 and in 1961 awarded her an honorary doctorate.
Riley’s relationship with Ouachita also extended into the realm of philanthropy. She donated funding toward the construction of two significant campus buildings in the 1940s. In 1941, Riley donated $15,000 toward the construction of Flenniken Memorial Hall, a two-story student center, honoring her late sister and brother-in-law, the Honorable Aylmer and Mary Riley Flenniken of El Dorado. In May 1949, after a fire destroyed “Old Main,” which housed the library, Riley donated funds for the construction of a modern, fireproof library, which also featured heat and air conditioning. The building, which was renovated significantly in 1987, still bears the Riley name in the twenty-first century, as well as that of Frank Hickingbotham, who provided funds for the remodel. Riley’s portrait was donated to the university in 1969 and faces the library front entrance doors. The portrait bears a brass plaque with a Latin inscription, a variation of that on Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, which translates as, “If you would seek my monument, look around you.”
Riley died at Baptist Medical Center in Little Rock on September 8, 1968. She is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in El Dorado.
For additional information:
Arrington, Michael E. Ouachita Baptist University: The First 100 Years. Little Rock: August House Publishes, 1985.
“Emma C. Riley.” Vertical file, Archives & Special Collections, Riley-Hickingbotham Library, Ouachita Baptist University, Arkadelphia, Arkansas.
Emma C. Riley Papers, Archives & Special Collections, Riley-Hickingbotham Library, Ouachita Baptist University, Arkadelphia, Arkansas.
“Patron of OBU, Board Member Dies at Age 88.” Arkansas Gazette, September 9, 1968, p. 20A.
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Last Updated: 12/09/2021