Inclement weather moved Friday morning’s 140th Founders’ Bell Tower Gathering from the site of the historic structure in the middle of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff campus to the dry environs of the L. A. Davis Sr. Student Union Lounge, but the change of venue did nothing to diminish the significance of the event.
“We’ll just call this the gathering since we had to move inside,” said Founders’ Celebration chair Tisha Arnold. “We have tried to incorporate the concept of edu-tainment into this week’s celebration activities by hosting events that present historical information in an entertaining format. This has been done in recognition of the idea that you can never know where you are going unless you know from whence you came.”
Former UAPB chancellor and class of 1957 alumnus Carolyn Blakely offered her thoughts on the W. E. O’Bryant Bell Tower, blending her personal story with the story of the tower itself.
“I have lived a long time and I claim every moment I’ve been here at UAPB but I was not here at the time that the Bell Tower was built,” Blakely said with a chuckle that was met with sympathetic laughter from the audience. “The tower stands as a reminder to the university community of the importance of unity, loyalty and fortitude. It stands majestically in the center of the campus quadrangle.”
Blakely said the area of campus where the tower is located got its name because of the structures that border it.
“On one end of the quadrangle were the two women’s dorms and on the opposite end were the two men’s dorms and never the twain did meet,” Blakely said with a smile. “You see, back then there were very strict rules when it came to the mixing of boys and girls. From 7 p.m. until 9 p.m. every evening students were required to either be in their dorms or at the library for a study period. From 9 p.m. until 10 p.m. we were allowed to go to the snack bar and see our boyfriends and girlfriends but after that we had to go back to our own dorms.”
Blakely said that during the difficult times of segregation the Bell Tower had its own special significance.
“The Bell Tower served as a catalyst in times of trouble as well as a source of inspiration,” Blakely said. “While I was a student here there were strict rules in place for students to keep them safe during the period of Jim Crow laws in the South. We had to sign out of our dormitory to go downtown and we could not go alone. I had to get a letter from my grandmother if I wanted to go home on the weekend. All of this was done to make sure that the school knew where we were.”
Blakely said that during her time as a student at the university the fraternities and sororities held activities at the Bell Tower.
“The funds for the Bell Tower were raised by alumni under the leadership of alumni president Dr. W. E. O’Bryant,” Blakely said. “It was designed by William ‘Wild Bill’ Lee, who was the director of trades. Students and teachers provided the labor under the direction of Alexander A. Mazique, who was an instructor of bricklaying. The project was completed in 1947.”
Blakely said that bells from the Branch Normal College campus were installed in the new Bell Tower in 1949.
“The brick plaza around the Bell Tower was built in 1999,” Blakely said. “In 2002 the area was updated with new landscaping.
“The Bell Tower continues to be a rallying point for the entire university,” Blakely said. “I have numerous fond memories related to the Bell Tower. I know that a number of campus organizations are photographed in front of it for the yearbook. I’m sure there have been a few marriage proposals made there too. Hold fast to the legacy of this university and honor that legacy by completing your stay here and moving on to a meaningful career.”
UAPB mathematics professor and class of 1950 alumnus Freddie Hartfield sang the UAPB Alma Mater.
Hartfield is the longest-serving tenured professor in the history of UAPB.
“The university helped him celebrate his 50th anniversary as a professor several years ago,” Arnold said.
The John McCline Ross Players of the UAPB Theater Department and director Cheryl Collins brought the gathering back in time to the late 1940s with a 1949 speech delivered by Matthew Reed portraying former A. M. & N. president and UAPB chancellor Lawrence A. Davis Sr.
Reed, dressed in period clothing, stood at a podium as Collins and several other theater students also dressed in period clothing sat in chairs alongside.
Reed, as Davis, announced the start of a construction program that would double the number of buildings on campus.
“Governor [Sidney] McMath has approved the appropriation of $425,000 to begin this construction at A. M. & N. College,” Reed said.