On Oct. 27, 1944, Joseph Samuel Clark, the first president of Southern University and Agricultural and Mechanical College in Baton Rouge, died. Clark led the university for nearly 25 years helping it become a leading educational institution for Black students.
Born on a plantation near Sparta, Louisiana on June 7, 1871, Clark received a bachelor’s degree from Leland College in 1901. Three years later he earned a master’s degree from Selma University and would later do post-graduate work at Harvard University and the University of Chicago.
After graduating from Leland, Clark became principal of Slater High School in Donaldsonville. However, he was soon appointed president of Baton Rouge Academy, later Baton Rouge College, where he stayed until 1913. During his tenure at Baton Rouge College, Clark expanded the curriculum, increased enrollment and helped facilitate the construction of a three-story building to replace a previous building destroyed by fire.
On Sept. 1, 1913, Clark became president of Southern University and Agricultural and Mechanical College. The original Southern University was located in New Orleans and operated for 30 years before closing. The new Southern University and A&M College was located in a small rural community called Scotlandville, a little more than seven miles outside of Baton Rouge. Scotlandville was later incorporated into Baton Rouge. The new school opened with 47 students and six staff members. There were only two buildings on the campus and students were required to take trade courses (nursing, carpentry, plumbing, domestic science, etc.) along with their academic classes.
By the time Clark retired in 1938, after serving 25 years at the helm of Southern, the school had expanded to more than 500 acres, there were 40 buildings on campus and 1500 students.
Upon his retirement, Clark passed the baton to his son, Felton Grandison Clark, who served as Southern’s president from 1938-1968.
Clark was regarded as a leading figure in the community. He served as president of the Louisiana State Colored Teachers Association from 1907-1915 and president of the New Capitol Insurance Company of New Orleans for three years. Clark was also active in the National Urban League and the National Business League. In addition, he had received honorary doctorate degrees from Leland College and Arkansas Baptist College.
Clark died on October 27, 1944, leaving behind his wife, Octavia Clark, and his son, Felton Clark. Southern University’s administration building is named in his honor.
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