Commonwealth College and the Spanish Civil War

November 9, 2018

Members of the New Llano Cooperative Colony in Louisiana formed Commonwealth College in 1923 Commonwealth was envisioned as a Labor College “… a college specifically aimed at the leadership of what they designated as a new social class, the industrial worker. The school moved to site thirteen miles outside of Mena, in Polk County, Arkansas in 1924.”[1]

In part as a reaction to the Great Depression, in the 1930s, Commonwealth’s focus shifted to training future labor leaders.  The shift began when Lucian Koch, a long-time faculty member led a student-staff revolt supporting a more aggressive labor policy.[ii] Commonwealth sent delegations of students to support striking coalminers and acting troops to build support for agricultural unions including the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU) in Eastern Arkansas. Beginning in 1934, Commonwealth established ties with the STFU and the college’s focus slowly shifted to providing training to potential STFU leaders and supporting the union’s activities.[iii] Spanish Civil War Veteran and alumni Bob Reed worked as the Treasurer of the Little Rock Workers Alliance and with the STFU after leaving Commonwealth and wrote frequent letters back to the college describing his activities. Several of his stories, articles and letters were published in the Commonwealth College Fortnightly.[iv]

Tuition for Commonwealth was inexpensive compared to the cost of a traditional education. Spanish Civil War volunteer Bob Reed recalled that he wanted to attend college, but money was not available. He was pleased when he ran across an advertisement for Commonwealth College where students could work for their room and board and tuition was only $50 per quarter. Bob submitted an application to Commonwealth College, and with his life savings of $65, he hopped a freight train for Mena, Arkansas.[v]

The  requirement that faculty and students work four hours each day, five days-a-week, to help make the college self-sufficient.  Faculty and students worked in the kitchen, library, and college offices, and performed tasks such as masonry, laundry, field work, and chopping wood. Marion Noble, who would later serve in Spain, recalled in his unpublished memoir that many of the urban students were better at the theoretical side than doing the hard labor required on a farm.[vi] Faculty received a small stipend along with room and board. Through these cost cutting efforts the college met about 70% of its needs. The balance of required operating expenses required constant fund-raising efforts from unions and other left-leaning organizations.

Commonwealth College was not an accredited institute of higher learning and it was unable to confer degrees to its students. The student body rarely exceeded fifty-five students and course loads were limited to three courses per quarter. Quarters were normally held year-round in fall, winter, spring and summer.  Classes focused on instructor-led group discussions.

The student body was diverse, though no black students were enrolled due to fears that this would outrage the college’s neighbors.  Harry Fisher, another International Brigade volunteer attended the school in the Fall 1932, He recalled that he and his classmates wanted to integrate Commonwealth College:

We planned to have blacks join the student body and to invite Paul Robeson to lecture. We would introduce Robeson as a great American scholar, singer, athlete and actor, and we would invite all the neighboring farmers to attend the event. Unfortunately, the faculty opposed our program, so we set up a picket line, which brought the Sherriff and his men, armed with shotguns.

Fisher and his fellow student protestors found themselves expelled from the school. An outsider observed “At Mena, no doubt, a student strike, whether with or without hunger feature, has many of the characteristics of a football rally or a raid on a movie palace at some of our more conventional universities.”[vii] Commonwealth College was never integrated.

For its size, Commonwealth College produced a disproportionate number of volunteers for service in the Spanish Civil War.[viii]  Students and faculty followed events in Spain and the student newspaper, Commonwealth College Fortnightly, later renamed Commoner, carried news a number of news stories regarding Spain.[ix]  Notice of Henry Eaton and John Field’s deaths in Spain were noted in an article and brief notice respectively.[x] A longer article by Hannah Sigel informed the college of the deaths of alumni Arvid Carleson, Morris Motz [Matz], Clyde Taylor, as well as her son Paul Sigel.[xi]

Commonwealth College also actively raised funds for Spain. For example, in the Fall 1938, the faculty and students held a party to raise funds to help stock a Spanish Relief Ship.  During the party the student body divided into small groups each of which developed and performed a short skit.  The Commoner noted that a “. . . chant of Spanish Workers, and an Anti-Fascist burlesque were exceptionally well received.” There was also an auction of “labor textbooks, pamphlets on Spain, and Spanish token money and art objects…”  Twenty dollars were raised to support Loyalist Spain.[xii]

After returning from Spain several veterans spent time as faculty or students at Commonwealth College.  Ralph Field returned to his faculty position as maintenance manager and teacher of public speaking after he was repatriated for medical reasons. American Medical Bureau nurse Mary Rader accompanied Field and accepted a position as the school nurse and community worker.[xiii]  Harry Mensh took a position as an economics teacher and described his course as a “. . .study of the economic laws that underlie present-day problems of crisis, unemployment, poverty and insecurity…”[xiv] Veteran Robert Levin [Levine] enrolled in the Spring 1939 quarter intent to study “labor journalism.”[xv]

After severing ties with the STFU in 1938, Commonwealth College struggled with a lack of purpose, declining school enrollment, and its contentious relationship with the town of Mena citizenry. The school’s attempts to maintain a cordial relationship with its neighbors were for naught.[xvi] Mena’s citizens regarded the school as a hot-bed of communism, free-love, and radicalism.  The town ultimately filed suit against the school for failing to fly the American flag during school hours and for flying a flag displaying the hammer and sickle.  The college was found guilty and was unable to pay the $5,000 fine levied against it.  Commonwealth College was forced to close in 1940 and its assets were sold at auction.[xvii]


[1] Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, William H. Cobb, “Commonwealth College,”

Cobb expanded his article into a full book Radical Education in the Rural South, Commonwealth College, 1922-1940, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 2000.

[ii] IBID.; Koch served as President of Commonwealth College from 1931 to 1937.

[iii] IBID.

[iv] Reed’s stories and articles include: Bob Reed, “Tomorrow We Start Picking,” Commonwealth College Fortnightly, V. 9, No. 5, March 1, 1933, p. 2; Bob Reed, “Texas Cotton Fields,” Commonwealth College Fortnightly, V. 9, No. 17, September 1, 1933, p. 2,;  “Bob Reed Goes to Little Rock,” Commonwealth College Fortnightly, V. 11, No. 16, August 15, 1935, p. 4.; “Homesick,” Commonwealth College Fortnightly, V. 12, No. 7, April 1, 1937, pp. 2-3.

[v] Chris Brooks and Lisa Clemmer, “Bob Reed, 1914-2005,” The Volunteer, Volume 27, No. 2, June 2005, p. 21.

[vi] Marion Noble unpublished memoir.

[vii] Harry Fisher, Comrades, Tales of a Brigadista in the Spanish Civil War, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997, p.4.; “Students Is Students.” (From the Baltimore Sun), Commonwealth College Fortnightly, V. 9, No. 1, January 1, 1933, p. 3.

[viii] As many as 43 alumni may have served in Spain, a number cited in  Tom Dillard, Fighters Against Fascist Forces by | August 12, 2018, Tom Dillard stated that the source of the number quoted was from an honors thesis by Clark Donat,  Email to Brooks August 22, 2018; Tom Dillard provided a copy; Clark Donat, For Money or Ideology: Frank Glasgow Tinker and Marion Noble in the Spanish Civil War, Honors Thesis, J. William Fullbright College of Arts and Sciences, The University of Arkansas, 2007.  Donat cites the number 43 from a newspaper article “Commonwealth to Memorialize Former Students,” The Mena Weekly Star, March 23, 1939, p. 3

[ix] The University of Arkansas digitalized more than 200 issues of the Commonwealth College Fortnightly and they are available online at  Commoners are not presently online.  Stephen Smith kindly shared a full copy of the Commoner, which ran from 1938 to 1940.

[x]  “Henry Eaton,” Commonwealth College Fortnightly, V.13, No. 19, November 1, 1937 [this article is reprinted in The Volunteer Blog at] and “John Field,” The Commoner, V. 1, No. 2, June 1938, p.1

[xi] The Commoner, V. 1, No. 11, April 1939, p. 2.

[xii] Party for Spain, The Commoner, V. 1, No. 6, November 1938, p. 4.

[xiii] New Teachers, The Commoner, V. 1, No. 7, December 1938, p. 2.

[xiv] Harry Mensh,“Classes Make Headway, Economics,” The Commoner, V. 1, No. 6, November 1938, p.3.

[xv] “They Come From Everywhere, Robert Levin,” The Commoner, V. 1, No. 11, April 1939, p. 3.

[xvi] “Code of Discipline Commonwealth College,” Commonwealth College Fortnightly, v. 13, No. 1, January 1, 1937, p. 3.  The article lists seven actions that would be considered breaches of discipline. The seventh states “In any way conducting oneself so as to cause an unfavorable reaction toward the school on the part of our immediate neighbors, residents of Mena, or others.”

[xvii] Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, Commonwealth College.