Helena puts hope in Civil War, music histories for tourism spur
Written by: George Jared
Published by: Talk Business & Politics
Delta Cultural Center Director Kyle Miller was on a tour of the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C., when a tour guide began talking about African slaves who were freed in a small Arkansas town during the Civil War. Miller was stunned when the guide said the town was Helena, the seat of Phillips County on the Mississippi River.
Freedom Park, dedicated to the freed slaves, and Fort Curtis, a Union fort inside the city, along with other historical markers have been dedicated to the city’s Civil War heritage. Locals are hopeful the history will drive tourism dollars into the eastern Arkansas Delta.
“The park [Freedom Park] is very good at explaining what happened here,” said Cathy Cunningham, Helena Advertising and Promotion Commission chairwoman. “It’s an important part of our history. We want to share it.”
Each year about 3,000 people visit Freedom Park. The city’s advertising and promotion tax generates about $250,000 per year, Cunningham said. The tax is a 2-cent tax on hotels and restaurants. Civic and business leaders hope the city’s unique history will lure more tourists in the coming years, Miller said.
Dark, rich soil attracted cotton farmers to the region during the early 1800s, according to historians. At one time before the Civil War, the county was reportedly the wealthiest in Arkansas, with most of its land in the hands of a few farm families.
THE INVASION OF ARKANSAS
When the Civil War erupted, Arkansas joined other Southern states in the conflict. A Union army under Gen. Samuel Curtis invaded Arkansas, and on July 12, 1862, his soldiers took over Helena. Its strategic position on the Mississippi River, its proximity to Vicksburg, Miss., and its ideal location on which to build a fort on Crowley’s Ridge made it an attractive target.
On his way to Helena, Curtis’ forces took on thousands of escaped slaves. Those slaves were told they would be listed as contraband and would be freed. After the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect Jan. 1, 1863, freed and escaped black men came to Helena to enlist in the newly formed “Colored Units” of the Union Army.
Helena’s relevance in the fighting part of the Civil War would culminate July 4, 1863 — the same day battles raged at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. About 12,000 Confederate soldiers attempted to retake the city to relieve Vicksburg, which was on the verge of collapse.
The Confederate Army was routed in the bloody battle, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. The battle was the last significant battle in Arkansas, and in just a couple of months most of the state’s main population centers, including Little Rock, succumbed to Union control.
Freedom Park has a canopy explaining the history and the plight of slaves, and those serving in the colored units, Miller said. A set of concrete footprints in the park leads to the canopy, he said. Many visitors ask if the footprints were modeled from slaves’ feet, but they were not, he said.
ELAINE MASSACRE, ESTEVAN HALL
A memorial is being built in Helena, in remembrance of one of the worst race-fueled killing sprees in U.S. history starting on Sept. 30, 1919. About 100 sharecroppers met one night at a church in the town of Elaine, a small town not far from Helena. Armed black guards protected the people inside. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss sharecropper wages.
Suddenly, white men appeared outside. No one knows who fired the first shot, but bullets flew during an altercation, and one white man was killed. Blacks outnumbered whites in that part of the county by at least 9-1, and a panic ensued. Whites poured into the county and formed an armed mob. The 1,000-man mob began to slaughter blacks.
Historians don’t know exactly how many blacks were killed during the violence that ensued, and estimates have ranged from 200 to 800. The memorial will be placed in the vicinity of the county courthouse and the federal courthouse building. The goal is to have the memorial completed the day before the 100-year anniversary of the event, Miller said.
Future tourism plans include expanding the historical attractions in the area. One of the most historic houses in Arkansas, Estevan Hall, is near Freedom Park. The house was built by the Hanks family in 1828, and it remains one of the oldest homes in Arkansas, according to historians. The Hanks family had a plantation and owned slaves. For more than 170 years, the house remained in the Hanks family. It sits near a tribute to Fort Curtis.
Civic and business leaders would like to turn Estevan Hall, which is still in good condition, into a welcome center for that area of town, Cunningham said. Several nonprofit groups attempted to revitalize the property in 2009, but that effort failed. Estevan Hall is vacant and owned by Southern Bancorp, Cunningham said. She is not sure how much it will cost to buy the building and renovate it into a welcome center, but she’s hopeful a person or group will step forward in the coming years to make that dream a reality.
Hall of Fame musician Conway Twitty grew up in Helena, and it’s a piece of history the city is promoting, Cunningham said. Twitty moved to the town when he was 10 during the early 1940s.
His first band was the Phillips County Ramblers. After high school, he spent time in the military and was even drafted to play major league baseball. He opted to pursue a career in music.
In 1958, he had his first No. 1 hit, “It’s Only Make Believe.” Twitty, born Harold Jenkins, would have 50 No. 1 hits, and he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Rock ’n’ roll era history tourism is a rapidly growing sector in the Delta Region of Arkansas, Cunningham said. There is a marker dedicated to Twitty in the city, and more are planned, according to the Delta Cultural Center.
A Civil Rights Park is being planned near Freedom Park, Miller said. U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, has agreed to bring the park proposal before a congressional committee. If it survives the committee process, it will be voted on by Congress, he said. How long it will take and how much it will cost are not known, he added.
“Our thoughts are that a civil rights park would be a natural fit,” he said.