Gladys Turner-Finney, a 1957 alumna of Arkansas Mechanical and Normal College — now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff — recently solved a mystery from the school’s past dating back to the early years of the 20th century.
Turner-Finney tracked down the final resting place of Joseph Carter Corbin, the whereabouts of which was previously unknown. Corbin was the founding father of Branch Normal College, now UAPB.
“Back in 2007 I was researching Professor Corbin for an article for African American Genealogy of the Miami Valley [Ohio],” Turner-Finney said in a Tuesday conversation. “Corbin is a native of Chillicothe, Ohio, and I wanted Ohioans to know something about this great man.”
Turner-Finney said that from her research she found that there was no record of Corbin’s death or the location of his gravesite.
“I found that his surviving daughter was interviewed shortly after his death and she said that he was to be buried in Chicago,” Turner-Finney said. “Corbin died in Pine Bluff on Jan. 9, 1911, and I discovered that at that time Arkansas was not doing statewide death certificate registration.”
Turner-Finney said that her thoughts soon turned to why Corbin was buried in Chicago.
“I started thinking that it was probably because of family and after some more research I found that his wife Marie Jean Corbin died in 1910 and was buried in what was then known as Waldheim German Cemetery and is now Forest Home Cemetery,” Turner-Finney said. “And, sure enough, that led me to the graves of Marie Jean Corbin, her husband Joseph Carter Corbin and their two sons John W. Corbin and William H. Corbin.”
“What I found were four unmarked graves,” Turner-Finney said. “I founded the Joseph Carter Corbin Headstone Project to raise money for grave markers. On May 27 at 12:00 p.m. a dedication ceremony will be held at the gravesite where headstones for Corbin and his family will be erected. There will be one headstone for Corbin and another for his family.
“The inscription on Corbin’s headstone will honor him as the founder of Branch Normal and the father of higher education for African-Americans in Arkansas and his gift of education to countless generations,” Turner-Finney said.
Turner-Finney said the featured speaker for the ceremony will be U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), whose district includes the cemetery.
“Congressman Davis is a 1961 graduate of A. M. & N. College,” Turner-Finney said.
The headstones are sponsored by the Joseph Carter Corbin Headstone Project and co-sponsored by the Black History Commission of Arkansas and the Alumni and Friends of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
Turner-Finney said she has felt close to Corbin’s legacy for a number of years.
“For me the success of the Headstone Project is very special because I am a graduate of Joseph Corbin High School,” Turner-Finney said. “It was located on the campus of what is now UAPB and I was in the last graduating class in 1953. I went on to enroll in A. M. & N. College and graduated with a degree in sociology in 1957.”
Turner-Finney put her training to use as a social worker within the Veterans Administration system after earning a master’s degree in social work from Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia.
“For me it wasn’t a job but more a commitment,” Turner-Finney said of her career. “It was something that I really wanted to do and this is vitally important. I worked with veterans who were in hospice for part of my career. I also worked in the area of mental health.”
Corbin was born March 26, 1833, in Chillocothe, Ohio, and died Jan. 9, 1911, in Pine Bluff. He was interred Jan. 14, 1911 in Chicago.
Corbin enrolled in Ohio University at the age of 17 and received a bachelor’s degree in art three years later. He earned two master’s degrees from Ohio University, the first in 1856 and the second in 1889.
Corbin migrated to Arkansas in 1872 and was elected State Superintendent of Public Education on the Republican ticket later that same year. He served as chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Arkansas Industrial University [now the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville). Corbin recommended a college for what he termed the education of the poorer classes and in 1875 Corbin became founder and principal of Branch Normal College, where he served until 1902.
He then became principal of Merrill High School in Pine Bluff.
He was a leader in the public education movement and of the Prince Hall Masons in Arkansas.