When the Arkansas Industrial University began in 1872, the university provided scholarships to 219 "beneficiaries," students chosen from across the state to receive four years of education at no charge. Among the beneficiaries was James McGahee, a student from Woodruff County who was preparing himself for the ministry of the Episcopal church, according to the Little Rock Daily Republican.
The Little Rock Daily Republican began publishing in 1868 as the Morning Republican and continued into 1876. It promoted the ideals and goals of the so-called regular Republican Party in Arkansas during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, including the civil rights of African American residents. John McClure, chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, was editor of the newspaper during this period.
The following note was published in the Feb. 8, 1873, edition:
"— We have learned since the publication of the article in reference to a normal school for colored teachers, that there is one colored student in the normal department at Fayetteville, and that he is making excellent progress. The name of the student is McGahee, and he is preparing himself for the ministry of the Episcopal church. We are glad to learn the fact—better one than none in that case."
After a 2005 story by Chris Branam in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, researchers at the University of Arkansas determined that McGahee was among the first African American students, and possibly the only one, to enroll at the university during its first year of operation. Sixteen students were listed in the freshman class, 15 in the normal class, and 204 were listed in the preparatory department, including McGahee.
To add a little more to the story, Fayetteville History tracked down a report on McGahee's first year of school work, published in the Little Rock Daily Republican on May 9, 1873:
"— James McGahee, the colored student at the Arkansas Industrial university, during the last term received the following credits for proficiency in his studies, the maximum being 100: Spelling, 93 per cent.; reading, 87 per cent.; penmanship, 95 per cent.; arithmetic, 90 per cent.; grammar, 88 per cent.; geography, 98 per cent.; history, 78 per cent. The average is an excellent one, and reflects great credit on Mr. McGahee."
The Daily Republican also reported the appointment of two other African American students — Mark W. Alexander and Isom Washington — as beneficiaries of the Arkansas Industrial University, although no record of their enrollment at the university has been found yet.
On Feb. 22, 1873, the Daily Republican reported that Mark Wallace Alexander had been appointed a beneficiary by Judge John E. Bennett of the Arkansas Supreme Court. Alexander was the son of James M. Alexander, a member of the Arkansas House of Representatives who died not longer after the legislative session of 1871. Mark Alexander served as a page in the 1873 legislature and his younger brother, John Hanks Alexander, was the second black graduate of West Point.
On July 22 and 23, the Daily Republican reported that Dickison Brugman, the superintendent of public instruction for Pulaski County, had appointed Isom Washington as a beneficiary for the fall 1873 term. Little more is known about Washington yet.
The end of Reconstruction in Arkansas changed the power structure in Arkansas and may well have ended McGahee's education at the Arkansas Industrial University or prevented Alexander and Washington from matriculating in the fall of 1873. Whether McGahee's educational endeavors continued after 1873 is unknown so far.