Bettye Williamson has fond memories of the 1973 night when her friend, Cordell Morgan, became the first African American elected as student body president at Arkansas Tech.
“I lived in Jones Hall, and I can remember there was a group of girls that was pulling for Cordell,” said Williamson. “We all ran up and down the hallways and the stairs cheering when we got the final count in. Everybody was very excited. That was a great accomplishment. Cordell was a born politician.”
Memories like that one compelled Williamson to participate in developing an endowed scholarship in Morgan’s memory through the Arkansas Tech University Foundation.
“I think he would be overwhelmed, honored and grateful,” said Williamson. “I think he would be very appreciative that we thought enough of him to do that. Knowing Cordell, he probably would say he didn’t do anything to deserve all this, but I think he would welcome it with open arms.”
Morgan was born Feb. 13, 1952, and raised in Grady, a rural southeast Arkansas community. When he enrolled at Arkansas Tech, he became the first member of his family to attend college and one of approximately 60 African American students on campus.
One of his best friends at Tech was Ken Wade.
Wade lived in Tucker Hall, and Morgan lived in the adjacent Wilson Hall. They met when Wade was out walking one evening and spotted Morgan in the Wilson Hall lobby. When Wade sensed a conflict brewing between Morgan and two other men, he came to Morgan’s defense and helped defuse the situation.
“Our friendship developed from that because of [Morgan’s] personality and sincerity,” said Wade. “He was energetic, had a great smile, was a charmer and he loved God. We both grew up raised by grandparents, so we had some connectivity with each other, and the chemistry developed from there.”
Wade remembers that a similar chemistry was evident within the African American population at Tech.
“We were close enough that we knew everyone’s parents,” said Wade. “Even though we were from different cities, we were a pretty close group. We kind of had to be. Tech was a different campus in 1972. You couldn’t go in there with a chip on your shoulder as an African American student and be successful. It was a survival skill that we all had.”
Morgan played a role in bringing people from different backgrounds together.
“Cordell, even though he was African American, that’s not where he hung out,” said Wade. “He hung out everywhere…with the white students, with the black students, with the African American residents who lived in Russellville…he was just good at that. He was a politician.”
Williamson also saw Morgan as a man of the people.
“Cordell was one of those individuals…everyone knew that he was present when he walked into the room,” said Williamson. “Back in the 1970s, there were very few Afro American students who attended Tech. It didn’t matter to Cordell what your race was. He always made everyone he came into contact with feel important. I remember the very first time I met him was in the student center. He had this saying every time he entered the room…he would go ‘people, people, people, how are you today? Have a good day.’ He had that type of personality that touched everyone’s heart. He gave everyone his undivided time. He was concerned about his fellow students in general.”
Morgan earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Arkansas Tech in 1974 and began a nearly three-decade career in the technology field. He worked for Southwestern Bell, Xerox, IBM, Data General, Electronic Data Systems, General Electric Computer Services and Pride Technologies before exploring his entrepreneurial side. Morgan founded Nationwide Technology Services Inc. in 1999.
Four years later, and five days short of his 51st birthday, Morgan passed away on Feb. 8, 2003.
Bettye Williamson’s phone rang in spring 2019. It was Ken Wade, who had recently retired from a career in nonprofit management. He was ready to take on a project that had been on his bucket list for some time.
Wade and Williamson developed a steering committee to establish the Cordell Morgan Endowed Scholarship. Their work began in April 2019. Six months later, during Arkansas Tech Homecoming 2019, the committee announced that it had exceeded its goal of raising $25,000 in support of the scholarship.
Applicants for the scholarship must be African American ATU students of sophomore, junior or senior standing with a 2.5-grade point average. Each applicant will also be required to write a 250-word essay detailing how he or she is making a difference at Arkansas Tech and in the community.
Wade and Williamson were joined on the steering committee by fellow Tech alumni Tony Davis, Virgil Miller Jr., Gerald Jones, Linda Robertson, Dr. Anes Wiley-Abraham, Donna Murphy, Gloria Warren-Walker, Tony Cotton and Donald Coleman.
Lead gifts were provided by two members of Morgan’s family: his brother, Kerry Briggs, and his nephew, Keith Britton.
Individuals interested in contributing to the Cordell Morgan Endowed Scholarship may contact Peggy Ayers, ATU director of planned giving, at (479) 964-0532 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It has been a joy,” said Williamson when asked about the fundraising effort. “I would do it all over again because we were able to tell stories and remember some things that had gone on during that time. It bonded our friendships, and now everybody is eager to do something else to unite and become one big, strong organization. To reconnect with everyone was outstanding.”
There’s no doubt in Wade’s mind as to how Morgan would feel about the scholarship.
“I can see him proudly smiling now,” said Wade. “If he was living, he’d only be 67. He would have one of those proud smiles on his face with his chest stuck out.”
For more photos of the Cordell scholarship reception, visit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/arkansastech/albums/72157711237773258
by Sam Strasner for the Tech Action, Spring 2020