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University of the Ozarks was the first PWI to admit Black students in Arkansas

During the fight to end segregation, the small-town university became a trailblazer by admitting the first Black athlete to compete in college sports in Arkansas.

CLARKSVILLE, Ark. — In 1958, the University of the Ozarks became the first primarily white institution (PWI) to admit Black students in Arkansas. Five years later, they welcomed the first Black athlete, Sylvester Benson, to compete in intercollegiate sports. 

Sylvester Benson helped break racial barriers in Arkansas when he joined the then-College of the Ozarks men’s basketball team in the fall of 1963. 

Originally from Hugo, Okla., Benson played basketball at Ozarks from 1963-1967 and was elected to the Ozarks Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.

“The University of the Ozarks stepped into that space and the coach at that time and the president at that time believed it was the right thing to do,” said Dr. Richard Dunsworth, the university president. 

After graduating from Ozarks, Benson went on to a 35-year career as a high school teacher and administrator in Kansas, retiring as a principal in 2001.  

President Dunsworth says hearing the story of Benson's journey over the years has encouraged him to look at higher education from a different point of view. 

“He talked about the fact that he came from a segregated school system. He kind of stands there for a second and says coming to Ozarks was the first time he had a white coach, it was the first time he had a white teacher and to me, that was a little bit of an epiphany because I never thought about it from that perspective,” said Dunsworth. 

Credit: 5NEWS

During Black History Month, student-athletes on campus are commemorating and appreciating the university’s rich history.

Ka'ron Lewis, current sophomore and a wrestler at the university, says during a time when being Black was very controversial, he believes Benson's story shows character and bravery.

“To know that I'm part of a university that disregarded all of that and started to pave ways for athletes in Arkansas - It's something very special.” said Lewis. 

Lewis plans to continue this legacy for his generation and the next. 

“He [Benson] had harder circumstances than we do now, but to continue to build on his legacy means simply means being the best version of a Black athlete you can be.”

Today, Dean of Students Terri Thomas is walking the same campus she once did as a student and reflects on the fact that she is the first African American woman to serve in the position. 

She says her reason for taking the job is deeper than her making history.

“It’s not just that I am Black History, I can see the history that my students are making right now. If they’re the first in their family to go to college, if this is their first time living by themselves— It’s really celebrating all the small successes that will hopefully one day lead them to be the first something as well.”

With a student population of 785, university leaders believe this is a small campus making a big impact across the state.

The university continues to embrace its trailblazing spirit and mission by enrolling students from diverse religious, cultural, educational and economic backgrounds.

Both Dunsworth and Thomas say their goal at the university is to continue to create an environment where students can create and own their space, where they can eventually make their own history. 

With a current student body representing 24 countries, 28 states and 40 counties in Arkansas, they believe they are on track to doing just that. 

To learn more about the University of the Ozarks and Sylvester Benson's journey, click here.

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