Born in Ohio in 1833, Joseph Carter Corbin was one of 11 children born to freed slaves William and Susan Corbin. His early education mainly took place during winters in the 1840s. He worked as a teacher in Kentucky before enrolling at the University of Ohio at Athens, graduating with a degree in art in 1853 and attaining his master's degree in art in 1856. Joseph married in 1866, and the family moved to Arkansas in 1872 where Joseph worked as a reporter for the Arkansas Republican before serving as chief clerk in the Little Rock post office. Corbin took advantage of Reconstruction Era politics in Arkansas and held the position of Arkansas's Superintendant of Public Instruction from 1873 to 1875. The position meant he also served as president of the University of Arkansas board of trustees. While serving in that role, he signed the contract for University Hall, now known as Old Main, to be built on the University of Arkansas campus. Corbin later served as principal of Branch Normal, which is now known as the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.