A dedication ceremony for the second major installment of Helena-West Helena's Civil War tourism development projects – Freedom Park – has been set for this Saturday, Feb. 23. The site will serve as a reminder of the sometimes forgotten story of thousands of escaped slaves who followed Union troops into the Mississippi River community in July 1862.
The event is slated to begin at noon at the park site at 750 South Biscoe.
Freedom Park came about as the result of several grants obtained through the Delta Bridge Project of Phillips County. It is the first location in Arkansas the National Park Service dedicated as a National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site.
The Delta Cultural Center will operate and maintain the park and features five main exhibits. The park explains the experiences of African Americans from fugitives to freedom during the Civil War.
History of the occupation of Helena
Major General Samuel Curtis and his Union forces took control of Helena on July 12, 1862. Curtis' troops had completed the journey across Arkansas that began following a federal victory at Pea Ridge.
Along the way, fugitive slaves began to join Curtis' troops. An abolitionist, Curtis refused to turn them away. The numbers continued to grow into the thousands that entered Helena with the union soldiers. At this time, Lincoln and Congress had failed to settle the matter and slaves were considered “contraband of war.” Every effort was made to provide shelter and food. The numbers continued to increase as word spread to other slaves throughout the Delta.
The freed slaves helped build Fort Curtis. After the Emancipation Proclamation was signed on Jan. 1, 1863, many of the men formerly bound to slavery joined the first African American regiments organized in Helena. They would face Confederate forces at the Battle of Helena on July 4, 1863.
According to a press release provided by the Delta Cultural Center exhibits at Freedom Park include:
• Two small structures with interpretive panels and metal silhouettes depict a plantation from which a fugitive slave might have escaped and the contraband huts to which they came.
• A celebration of the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation and touches on the modern Civil Rights Movement and the election of President Barack, the country's first African American president.
• A life-size bronze statue of a black Union soldier stands next to an interpretive wayside that explains the willingness of the “male contraband” to fight for the Union.
• Two earthen structures representing embattlements and metal silhouettes depicting members of the 2nd Arkansas Infantry of African descent are located where the troops were stationed during the 1863 Battle of Helena.
Visitors will have access to printed material and audio guides as they tour Freedom Park.
A Fort Curtis replica was dedicated in May 2012. Projects scheduled for completion in 2013 and 2014 include the restoration of Estevan Hall, which served as a Union hospital during the Civil War; and improvements to “Battery C”, which is also expected to become a DCC- administered park.
Page 2 of 2 - Recently, the state Department of Transportation recently approved a Scenic Byways grant to create a pedestrian trail to connect five Helena-West Helena Civil War sites, provide infrastructure improvements, by beautification, parking and walking trails.
Once completed, the Civil War Helena initiative is expected to bring more than 60,000 visitors each year to Phillips County and eventually create more than 40 tourism-related jobs. It is estimated that Civil War-related tourism could generate as much as $9 million annually in revenue for the area.
For more information, visit civilwarhelena.com, or contact Paula Oliver at the Delta Cultural Center at (800) 358-0972.