Commonwealth College was established in 1923 at the Newllano Cooperative Colony (near Leesville, Louisiana) to promote labor education and especially to educate leaders for the labor movement. Due to clashes among strong personalities and conflicting priorities, the college was soon looking for a new home. Commonwealth College moved to a temporary location in Mena, Polk County, Arkansas, in December 1924. On April 19, 1925, the school moved to a permanent location thirteen miles west of Mena.
In 1926, the American Legion’s State Convention charged Commonwealth College with Bolshevism, “Sovietism,” Communism, and free love. After months of negative publicity for the school, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover denied that the college had any record of such ideas and activities. These charges, though unfounded at the time, gave Commonwealth a public image of being “Red.”
In June 1931, a student-staff revolt headed by Lucian Koch seized control of the college and ousted the director William E. Zeuch. Activist faculty, staff, and students supported coal miners’ strikes, farm-labor organizations, and the formation of a new Socialist Party in Arkansas. Clay Fulks, the party’s nominee for governor in 1932, was an instructor at Commonwealth.
The school’s increasing involvement with the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union led to its focus shifting almost entirely to providing training for potential union leaders and supporting STFU activities. Conflicts of ideologies and personalities resulted in the STFU severing its relationship with the college by the end of 1938.
The college eventually closed in 1940.
Commonwealth College was in the news a great deal during 1954, when Orval Faubus’ previous attendance at the school became a major campaign issue.
Image Caption: Student Group, Commonwealth College, 1925, Picture Collection 2898a
Special Collections holds more than 500 books once available to Commonwealth students in their college library. One of the special libraries preserved in rare books of the University Libraries, donations and collecting over decades has allowed researchers to see some of the books students used and access unique aspects of the books, such as marginalia, bookplates, and inscriptions from donors. The Commonwealth library books also includes some very rare and specialized titles and areas of study, otherwise unavailable in the Libraries' holdings.
The Commonwealth College library books are discoverable in the Libraries catalog. One can search "Commonwealth College," which brings back hundreds of returns, including the books once at the College. You can also follow the local subject heading: Commonwealth College Library, gift of Rich Mountain Community College. That heading is a tribute to the books acquired after Commonwealth's closure by Rich Mountain Community College, which they later donated to the University of Arkansas Libraries.
Local Subject Heading: Commonwealth College Library, gift of Rich Mountain Community College.
Oral histories with references to Commonwealth College:
Interview with Gene Foreman on August 4, 2000 by Gerald Jordan
Interview with Ernest Dumas on October 24, 2000 by Roy Reed
See Pryor Center website for complete interviews
Commonwealth College Fortnightly & Other Records PER-MFILM Film 356 Reel 2