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UA Little Rock Center for Arkansas History and Culture Launches Online Exhibit Commemorating Arkansas’s First African American Optometrist

Dr. Townsend
Dr. Townsend

The Center for Arkansas History and Culture (CAHC) at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock has launched a new online exhibit exploring the life and achievements of Dr. William Townsend, a civil rights leader in Arkansas who was the first African American licensed to practice optometry in the state.

The exhibit, “Dr. William H. Townsend: Optometrist, Civil Rights Leader, State Representative,” follows Townsend’s career and public service highlights and is available via this link.

Townsend, who passed away in 2005, was known as a trailblazer and is honored on the Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail. He was the first African American licensed to practice optometry in Arkansas, one of the first African Americans to serve in the Arkansas House of Representatives since the 1890s, and the first African American to chair the Aging and Legislative Affairs Committee.

“Dr. Townsend has a prominent role in politics and the professions in Arkansas,” said Dr. Deborah Baldwin, CAHC director and principal investigator on the grant. “He is a good example in the City of Little Rock of an African American who contributed in a variety of arenas. We have records relating to his service as a legislator and his time as an optician. This is one of our collections that we envisioned would capture the public interest.”

The exhibit is funded by an African American History and Culture Grant from the Arkansas Humanities Council, which provides funding for nonprofit organizations who wish to research, document, preserve, and interpret the state’s African American history and culture.

Townsend was born July 30, 1914, in West Point, Mississippi, but grew up in Earle, Arkansas. After high school, he joined the army during World War II. While he was on duty, he studied at Nottingham University in England.

After the war, Townsend became a student at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture. In 1950, he graduated from the Northern Illinois College of Optometry. He opened an optometrist clinic in Little Rock not long after graduating.

Townsend was very active in Arkansas politics. During the 1950s, he was a founding member and served as the president of the Council of Human Relations. This council helped to desegregate public schools and businesses in the state. He was also a member of the Council of Community Affairs, which was formed in 1961 by a group of black medical professionals. They facilitated the peaceful desegregation of downtown Little Rock in 1963.

In 1966, Townsend served as the chairman of the Arkansas Voter Project, a statewide voter registration initiative run under the Southern Regional Council’s Voter Education Project. In 1972, Townsend was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives for the first of 12 terms.

CAHC archivists Adrienne Jones and Cody Besett, Laura McClellan, CAHC assistant director, and Dr. Nathan Marvin, assistant professor of history at UA Little Rock, all contributed to the project.