One hundred and fifty years ago, runaway slaves hoping for freedom in and near Helena, Arkansas found themselves in horrid conditions. While the Mississippi River port town was overflowing with citizens, military personnel, and freedmen, the infrastructure was in a state of collapse. According to Margaret Ross in a 1963 article, “Some of the slaves were from Arkansas. Many were from adjoining states. Very few were from the area around Helena, for the local Negroes could see the conditions under which the runaways lived, and they wanted no part of it.”
Suffering extremely high mortality rates, Ross related a correspondence from February, 1863 from a newspaper writer from Wisconsin who boarded in the home of Dr. Hector U. Grant in Helena:
“Back of Gen. (Cadwallader C.) Washburn’s headquarters but a short distance, is a peach orchard, the little groves in rows so close that one can hardly step between them. Here, about two feet underground, are over a thousand dead Negroes, and day after day others who have starved to death are being added to the nameless list. And there are a dozen Negro graveyards in Helena, each rapidly being filled with Negroes who were once happy and contented in health, and cared for, of use to themselves and the world.”
The 1963 article also related that, “It was the opinion of the correspondent that many of the Federal officers deliberately abused the Negroes, and he said that he interfered three times in the past week to keep some officers from mistreating Negro men.”
To commemorate the sacrifices of the African American during the Civil War, a large 5-exhibit outdoor interpretative park will be dedicated to these men, women, and children in Helena on February 23, 2013 at noon near the historical site the 2nd Arkansas Infantry of African Descent fought off the Confederate attack under the command of Colonel Brooks on the morning of July 4, 1863. Freedom Park highlights the history of the African American experience during the Civil War in the Delta.