Anthony Wright Admin Building

The Administration Building was built in 1952 and soon became the center of campus activity, holding various school events, presentations and chapel. Today, the building remains a prominent fixture on the front lawn, housing several administrative offices and a 973-seat auditorium. Following a proposal by the Task Force on Recognizing African American Achievement at Harding University which was approved by the board of trustees, the building was named the Anthony & Wright Administration Building on Oct. 23, 2021, in honor of the first African American graduates, Bro. Elijah Anthony and Dr. Howard Wright. In addition, monuments were erected outside the building to honor both Anthony and Wright as well as J.C. Lewis Brown, Walter Cunningham and David Johnson — the first African American students to enroll — and Thelma Fae Smith and Curtis Sykes — the first African Americans to graduate with master’s degrees. The dedication ceremony on Oct. 23, 2021 was recorded and is available to watch. Harding University continues to seek ways to recognize and remember the history and presence of African American students and alumni in an effort to celebrate the entire heritage of the Harding family.


Elijah Anthony & Dr. Howard Wright

Elijah Anthony and Dr. Howard Wright were the first two African American students to graduate from Harding with a bachelor’s degree.

Learn more about Bro. Elijah Anthony

Elijah Anthony was born to Elijah and Elizabeth Anthony on Sept. 30, 1946, in Birmingham, Alabama. His parents allowed him to be raised by his grandparents where he was introduced to Scripture at an early age at the Ensley Church of Christ. At age 16, Elijah began preaching, a service he would continue for the rest of his life.

A 1964 graduate of Western-Olin High School in Birmingham, Anthony was a member of the concert, jazz and marching bands. In 1964 he entered Tuskegee Institute. The following year he transferred to Alabama Christian College and in 1966 enrolled at Harding College where he earned a bachelor’s in English in 1968.

Following his time at Harding, Anthony began a distinguished career in education and counseling. He served in high schools in New York, where he earned his Master of Science in educational guidance at Queens College, City University of New York. He continued his work in higher education in New Jersey, Maryland, Georgia and Alabama, where he was recognized as an Outstanding Administrator in 2011 and received the Chancellor's Award from the Alabama Community College System. Elijah Anthony preached for congregations in New York, Pennsylvania and Alabama. He has held gospel meetings, hosted seminars on racial reconciliation and served on panels that address racial unity. Harding recognized him as Distinguished Alumnus of the Year in 2018. He is a member of several professional organizations and has served on several boards. He and his wife, Violet Tyree, have two sons and seven grandchildren.

Learn more about Dr. Howard Wright

Howard Wright was born on June 29, 1945 in Chester, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Northeastern Christian College before transferring to Harding where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1968. He earned a Master of Social Work from Stony Brook State University and also attended Adelphi University. In Dec. 2007, Wright was awarded an honorary doctorate from Harding University. In Oct. 2011, Brother Wright was honored as the Distinguished Alumnus of the Year by Harding, the first African American to receive such a prestigious honor. He has been a member of the Harding board of trustees since 2014.

Dr. Wright preached for 50 years at churches in New York, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Arkansas. In addition to his ministerial duties, he has led many community and civic efforts addressing juvenile delinquency, court diversion and drug prevention as well as training community volunteers and students in mediation and conflict resolution to assist young people in trouble with the court system. In addition to holding Gospel meetings, Dr. Wright speaks as part of many regional, national and Christian college lectureships.

Dr. Wright is a clinical family therapist and licensed clinical social worker. He facilitates marriage and family workshops with his wife, Claudine, lectures on human relations symposiums and social work seminars, and conducts conflict resolution workshops and peer leadership workshops for public schools.

For the last 40 years, Dr. Wright has served on the board of directors of Timothy Hill Children’s Ranch in New York, a residential treatment facility for incarcerated, abused and neglected teenagers.

He and his wife, Claudine, have one son, a daughter-in-law, two daughters and two sons-in-law, and five grandchildren.

Walter Cunningham, J.C. Lewis Brown & David Johnson

Walter Cunningham, J.C. Lewis Brown and David Johnson were the first three African American students to enroll and attend Harding.

Learn more about Walter Cunningham

Walter Thomas Cunningham was born in Searcy, Arkansas, on Nov. 3, 1943, to Eddie and Mary Frances Cunningham, one of four siblings. He graduated with honors from the White County Training School, and many people, including Harding professor Bill Verkler, recognized Cunningham’s potential. Verkler was instrumental in his entrance into Harding in 1963. 

Cunningham began as a Bible major and worked as a youth minister at the West Pleasure Street Church of Christ for many years. After leaving Harding, he served as a regional executive for the Boy Scouts of America in Little Rock, Arkansas. He also worked as a campaign manager for Arkansas governor Winthrop Rockefeller, later becoming assistant city manager for the City of Little Rock. After moving to Washington D. C., he organized the National Small Business 8(a) Certification Association and started his own small business development company. By the late 1980s, he had settled in Stamford, Connecticut, becoming an executive recruiter with Higbee Associates. His sister, Jeanette Cunningham Williams, wrote, “We have so many memories of our big brother. He was a family-oriented person. We were so proud of him.”

The only sibling in his family to attend college, he returned to Harding on Feb. 10, 1972, to speak on “New Methods of Building the Minority Community,” as part of the American Studies Institute. Cunningham passed away on Oct. 4, 2008. His family includes parents, Eddie Cunningham Sr. and Mary Frances Cunningham; siblings, Marvin Robinson, Jeanette C. Williams, Penny Cunningham and Shirley Cunningham. He married his high school sweetheart, Sheba, in 1963, and they had two children, Walter Jr. and Sheila.He married again in the 1980s to Carolyn Roland Cunningham. He had four grandchildren, Michael James Jr, Shekela, Tamila and Moriah.

Learn more about J.C. Lewis Brown

J.C. Lewis Brown was one of the first African Americans to matriculate at Harding following the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He is the eldest of eight children born to Thomas and Pearlie Mae Brown in Augusta, Arkansas. Brown began his formal education in the segregated school districts of Woodruff and White County.

Though the experience was taxing, Brown excelled at Harding. Walter Cunningham, David Johnson and he were greeted with contempt as President George Benson escorted the three first African American students to chapel. Brown vividly recalled incidents of racism and outright hatred from various White County residents. Multiple attempts were made to run him over as he walked through the “white side of town” to attend classes. Despite these obstacles, Brown focused on his education, never allowing anyone to make him feel marginalized.

Brown’s time at Harding was interrupted when he was drafted at the height of the Vietnam War and assigned to Special Intelligence Operations while stationed at Fort Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska. His exemplary service earned him several awards including the National Defense Service Medal, an Army Commendation Medal, an Expert Badge and the Medal of Good Conduct. Following an honorable discharge, he was appointed as special assistant to Arkansas governor Winthrop Rockefeller. As executive director of the Arkansas Human Resource Council, he advised employers and labor unions on policies to prevent discrimination. He later left politics to direct his talents toward entrepreneurship where he was instrumental in growing the sales revenue for various Ford dealerships.

Brown was mentored in speaking at both the College and West Pleasure Street Churches of Christ in Searcy and later served as an elder at Lewis Street Church of Christ in Little Rock, Arkansas. During his tenure, the congregation, which was pivotal in the African American community, grew extensively. Brown also was instrumental in securing the congregation’s ownership of the building and subsequent expansion. He and his family ministered weekly to members in hospitals, homes and nursing facilities.

Brown is both a Civil Rights advocate and a dedicated family man. One of his sisters, his eldest daughter and several of his cousins attended Harding for a Christian education. He is a faithful Christian soldier for equality and social justice, his legacy will continue in the lives of his family and the members of his community.

Learn more about David Johnson

David Leigh Johnson was born in Searcy, Arkansas, on Nov. 9, 1945, to Amos William Thomas Johnson and Hattie Charles Day Johnson. He attended the White County Training School in Searcy, graduating as valedictorian of his class. 

In 1963, Johnson enrolled at Harding College. He felt special support in this process from Harding teacher Bill Verkler. However, because he did not receive financial support after the first year, Johnson chose to leave Harding.

He chose to enter the U.S. Air Force where he had a 20-year career and retired as a master sergeant. Always persistent in finding his way in life, Johnson later completed his education, graduating from Incarnate Word College with a Bachelor of Science in nuclear medicine. He worked for several hospitals across the country in imaging services. By the time of his retirement, he had risen to director of imaging services for the hospital that employed him.

Johnson married Alice J. Johnson and had two children, Nicole J. Johnson and Nicholas J. Johnson. He had a large extended family in Searcy. His grand-niece, Sierra White Chaney, also attended Harding University.

Curtis Sykes & Thelma Fae Smith

Curtis Sykes and Thelma Fae Smith were the first two African Americans to graduate from Harding with a master’s degree.

Learn more about Curtis Sykes

Curtis Henry Sykes was born Dec. 21, 1930 to Arlene Sykes and Clarence Jerrod in North Little Rock, Arkansas. He attended North Little Rock public schools, graduating from Scipio A. Jones High School in 1947. He received a Bachelor of Science from Bishop College and a Master of Arts in education from Texas College before earning a Master of Science in education from Harding University in 1965. He was encouraged to enroll at Harding by his close friend, David Lyons, who graduated a year later in 1966.

Curtis served as a sergeant in the U. S. Army during the Korean War, and after receiving an honorable discharge, he returned to his roots and began a career in Arkansas schools. He taught in Augusta and at Arkansas Baptist in Little Rock where he worked closely with Daisy Bates helping choose articles for the Arkansas State Press.

In 1985, Curtis retired after serving 34 years in education as a teacher, football coach, assistant principal and principal. Sykes was a mentor inside and outside the classroom, particularly encouraging Black men to enter the teaching profession. He organized programs for young people and projects that promoted Black history. He worked specifically to write a bill requiring Black history be taught in Arkansas schools.

Members of the Sykes family include his grandparents, John & Ella Sykes; parents Arlene Sykes and Clarence Jerrod; his wife of 52 years, Delois Sykes; daughters, Rosalyn Sykes of Grandview, Missouri; Adrienne Thrasher (Howard) of Round Rock, Texas; Belinda (William) Burney of Richardson, Texas; and Curlethia (William) Swanigan of North Little Rock; seven grandchildren, Kimberly Hester, Michael Hester Jr., Karen Hester, Shawntrice White, Curtis White, Kyndall Thrasher and Howard Thrasher Jr.; three great-grandchildren, three dearly loved aunts, Thelma, Elsie and Dorothy; a sister, Catherine (LeRoy) Baker; and a brother, Earl (Zelma) Sykes.

Learn more about Thelma Fae Smith

Years after her parents and grandparents worked as cooks at Galloway Women’s College in Searcy, Arkansas, Thelma Fae Hilliard Smith became the first African American to receive her master's degree from Harding at the same location. She was born in Fort Smith, Arkansas, to James Murray Hilliard and Minnie Lee King Hilliard on June 24, 1910. She graduated from Lincoln High School, receiving her bachelor’s degree in English from Knoxville College in Knoxville, Tennessee. She then earned a Master of Arts in teaching from Harding in 1965.

Mrs. Smith loved teaching, and she loved her students. Beginning her career at Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Howard School in Fort Smith, Arkansas, she later joined her husband, James, who was principal at Augusta Colored School, later named George Washington Carver School. No high school existed for African American students in Augusta, Arkansas, in the 1930s. The Smiths’ leadership led to the addition of 6th through 12th grades, and the first class graduated in 1947.

Augusta schools were consolidated in 1970, and Mrs. Smith taught at Augusta High School until her retirement in 1975. She also taught English courses for World War II veterans, helping them earn credits toward high school diplomas. 

Her legacy to teaching included organizing and sponsoring the debate team, drama club, Richard B. Harrison Literary Society, Future Teachers of America and the Bearcat yearbook. Her students fondly remember the Senior Class Tea programs held annually in the Smiths’ home.

Mrs. Smith served as secretary to the Arkansas State Education Association as well as on several district teachers association committees. She was secretary of the Woodruff County Retired Teachers Association for eight years. Devoted to St. John Baptist Church, she was organist for five years as well as leading and serving on several district and state committees, dedicating her life to encouraging the church. 

Because of the distinguished example set by Mrs. Smith, the Harding University Cannon- Clary College of Education has chosen to honor her and educators who seek to follow in her footsteps by dedicating the Thelma Fae Smith Diversity in Education Scholarship in her name.