A UA Little Rock history student is celebrating the completion of his lifelong dream of finishing his college education, a dream that is 50 years in the making.
By all measures, Ellis “Gene” Thompson of Little Rock has led a very successful life. He has a loving family and had a very successful career in media sales spanning more than four decades.
“After leaving KATV as the local sales manager here, I finished that career and was faced with what I want to do,” Thompson said. “Something that had always been nagging me was to get my degree. Life had taken that opportunity away from me earlier when I was in Washington, D.C.”
A native of Joliet, Illinois, Thompson joined the U.S. Navy and worked in an experimental surgery unit and then enrolled at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. in 1973.
“There I really started to mature and find my sea legs, as you will,” he said. “The doctors were very supportive of me going to college. That is why I went to Georgetown, but I was married and had a child and work. I couldn’t sustain a decent lifestyle and go to Georgetown, which was very demanding.”
In 1975, Thompson left Georgetown with an associate degree and a strong desire to one day finish his college education. His career took him from Washington, D.C., to Chicago, to Dayton, Ohio, to Orlando and New York City. His final stop brought him to Little Rock in 2010 to work at KATV.
“I had a great run in TV, but I’m done,” Thompson said. “I had a deep love of history, and I got that while I was at Georgetown. One of my instructors was the department head, and I fell in love with history after taking her class. I decided to come to UA Little Rock as a history major.”
Thompson joined UA Little Rock in 2017 and graduated with his bachelor’s degree in history in 2019. He will graduate this semester with a master’s degree in public history, which brings his journey to complete his college education to an end 50 years after he started.
“It’s something that I feel I should have done a long time ago,” he said. “It’s basically been unfinished business as far as my life is concerned. So, getting this degree is a culmination of a lifelong search for my own comfort with myself. It’s a culmination of something that I felt I should have done a long time ago and should have been determined earlier in my life. However, it feels just as good now. This is who I should have been all my life, a person with a master’s degree.”
One of his favorite experiences in graduate school was participating in a class taught by Dr. John Kirk, George W. Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History, which examined the criminal cases of Robert Bell and Grady Swain, two African American teenagers who were convicted of the first-degree murder of Julius McCollum and sentenced to death. Bell and Swain confessed to the crime, but later said their confessions were forced. The class wrote a paper about the case that received the Lucille Westbrook Award from the Arkansas Historical Association for the best article manuscript on an aspect of local history.
“That class really grabbed me, and I learned so much about going through archives and dusty, old records,” he said.
Thompson wrote his thesis, “The Fight for Freedmen’s Minds in Arkansas,” about the development of educational programs for African Americans in the state in the 1860s and 1870s.
“Arkansas was one of the last states to develop a public primary and secondary school system for African American students,” Thompson wrote. “While education was for the most part privatized, an important philosophy for educating African Americans was developed early by the Free African Society and the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church that influenced Arkansas public and private Freedman education.”
In the 1860s and 70s, there were millions of newly freed formerly enslaved people who needed an education with competing methods of how that should work. Samuel Armstrong, founder of the Hampton Institute, created an educational model called the Hampton-Tuskegee Model, which emphasized character building through manual labor and learning occupational skills. The AME church strongly contested the Hampton-Tuskegee Model.
“The AME church put forth the philosophy that they wanted Freedman taught in the classical manner, emphasizing subjects like English, literature, and algebra,” Thompson said. “They wanted to train a middle-class population with doctors, teachers, and lawyers. The Hampton model emphasized teaching people manual labor skills – how to be a blacksmith, how to sew. They taught young girls how to work in houses as maids. It was being put out there that this was necessary because industrialists needed a large workforce.”
Thompson dedicated his thesis to his mother, who was the daughter of an AME preacher and an inspiration for him to complete college.
“I also did this for my mom who always believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself,” Thompson said. “She used to sit in the kitchen with me to do my homework when I was a child. She instilled in me that desire to get it done, and that was one of the real drivers in writing my thesis.”
With graduation approaching, Thompson is thankful to history professors James Ross, Barclay Key, Jess Porter, Edward Anson, Carl Moneyhon, and Marta Cieslak for inspiring him to succeed.
“My experience here has been absolutely magnificent,” he said. “I can’t say enough good things about the history department and the professors. These people are first rate, and I know because I came from one of those fancy east schools. I had a very successful career, but this is something different that I needed to do and I’m so glad I did it. I never in my wildest dreams would have thought that I would end up living in Arkansas and getting a master’s degree at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. I believe it’s a top-rate education.”