Commonwealth College (Arkansas)

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Commonwealth College
Active 1923–1940
Location Mena, Arkansas, United States

Commonwealth College was started in 1923 to recruit and train people to take the lead in socio-economic reform and prepare them for unconventional roles in a new and different society. An outgrowth of Job Harriman's New Lano Cooperative Colony in Louisiana, in 1923, William Zeuch, James McDonald, and Kate Richards O'Hare joined with New Lano to found the institute in 1923. In the 1930s Commonwealth was essentially oriented towards training organizers for the rapidly growing labor movement.

Tensions within cooperative community led to a split and Commonwealth’s founders moved to Mena, Arkansas in December, 1924 where the institution re-opened the next year.

History and approach[edit]

Commonwealth College aimed to recruit and train people to take the lead in socio-economic reform and prepare them for unconventional roles in a new and different society. Students, staff, and faculty all worked together in the operation of the institution, from growing and preparing food to the construction and maintenance of buildings, each student was required to donate 20 hours of labor per week either in the carpenter shop or in the fields sometimes even driving a team of giant white Arkansas mules. There was a lot of curiosity nationally in Commonwealth. As an example, Roger Nash Baldwin, long-time director of the American Civil Liberties Union, was an active member of the advisory board.

The focus of Commonwealth’s founders was initially on self-support to insure independence from outside influence and a mission to educate idealistic leaders for the labor movement. Zeuch served as director until 1931, when after a student-led revolt, he accepted a Guggenheim Fellowship to study in Europe for a year and did not return.

For the next six years, leadership of Commonwealth passed to Lucian Koch and an increasing emphasis was placed in activism for farm and labor causes. During this period there was a high level of politics among the students resulting in sharp divisions. At one point the communist group of students asked the administration to bring a black student into the school immediately. This was refused and a strike was called by the communist group. The strike lasted for a short time until the communist students and a few others left the school in a body for Chicago. This strike resulted in a fatal blow to Commonwealth College from which it never really recovered. Many students then at Commonwealth believed that bringing a black student into the school would result in serious trouble, if not a lynching, in the then all-white Polk county in which the school was located. Supposedly a black person had not stayed overnight for years.

Christian socialist the Reverend Claude Williams, "the preaching hillbilly",[1] then served as director from 1937 until 1940. Several people identified with Commonwealth were actively involved during this period in organizing the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, which aimed to unite the economic interests of tenant farmers, both black and white, and with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Education for racial tolerance was a key element of this campaign and Commonwealth developed theater and puppet programs for this purpose.

Critics in the state argued that the institution was under Communist influence. Weakened ties with traditional supporters and shaky finances led to proposals for merger with the Highlander Folk School or the operation of a drama center affiliated with the New Theatre League of New York City. Ultimately the property was sold at a Polk County auction to satisfy fines levied against the institution.

Notable alumni include: Gordon McIntire and Reuben Cole, two of the leaders of the Louisiana Farmers' Union[2] Agnes "Sis" Cunningham and Lee Hays, founders with Pete Seeger of the Almanac Singers and The Weavers in New York City (Cunningham also later founded and helped edit Broadside Magazine); Kenneth Patchen, well-known poet and artist; and Orval Faubus, Governor of Arkansas from 1955 to 1967.

Other labor schools were: Denver Labor College, Work People's College, Brookwood Labor College, Seattle Labor College and Highlander Folk School. Commonwealth differed by offering college-level classes.


Faculty at Commonwealth included: F.M. Goodhue (mathematics and statistics), Covington Hall (labor history), William Clark Benton (history and law), Kate Richards O'Hare, Bill Cunningham (journalism), John E. Kirkpatrick (author of the American College and Its Rulers, taught labor economics one term), Charlotte Koch (typing, executive secretary), Clay Fulks (law and agricultural problems), E.C. Wilson, Earl C. Hamilton (comparative religions), George Yeisley Rusk, and Lucien Koch.


  1. ^ See Cedric Belfrage, South of God (Modern Age Books, 1941) and Samuel S. Hill, On Jordan's Stormy Banks: Religion in the South : a Southern exposure profile (Mercer University Press, 1983).
  2. ^ Greta de Jong, A Different Day: African American Struggles for Justice in Rural Louisiana, 1900-1970 (University of North Carolina Press 2002), pp. 98-100;

See also[edit]


  • Koch, Raymond & Charlotte. Educational Commune: The Story of Commonwealth College. NY: Schocken Books. 1972.
  • Cobb, William H. Radical Education in the Rural South: Commonwealth College, 1922-1940. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000.

External links[edit]