“We stand here on the site where 2,500 African Americans gained their freedom…and a place where a lot of suffering was endured to obtain that freedom,” commented Norman Hill, president of the13th U.S. Colored Troops of Mufreesboro, Tenn. during his opening remarks at the official dedication of Freedom Park Saturday. “This was one of our darkest and most defining moments in our history.”
Despite slightly chilling temperatures, there was a significant turnout for the ceremony of the second major installment of Helena's Civil War tourism projects – the first being Fort Curtis.
The USCT officially opened the festivities with the presentation of the colors.
Speaking on behalf of Mayor Arnell Willis, Allen Martin, administrative assistant for the City of Helena, called the gathering a “momentous occasion.”
“This is a welcome addition to Helena's Civil War history,” he said. “We wish to thank those who worked so hard to make it work.”
Maria Brent, interpretive planner, for Mudpuppy & Waterdog of Versailes, Ky. and designer of the park, said Freedom Park is “all about courage of a people who risked everything in hopes of establishing a better life for themselves and their families after arriving here with nothing.”
“Freedom Park,” added Brent, “is a tribute to the human spirit.
Keynote speaker Ronnie Nichols, artist/historian and former Helena resident, praised Earnest and Cathy Cunningham for their efforts in helping make Freedom Park become reality.
“Without their efforts this would not have been possible,” he said.
In his remarks, Nichols asked, “Why did these black people come here to Helena?”
“More than 2,500 slaves came here through the mud and blood on their faith that a better life awaited them,” he commented.
In a moving closing ceremony, members of the 13th USCT and 33rd Missouri Infantry Squad conducted a flag ceremony in which the 31-star flag of the U.S. at the time of the Civil War was raised above the park with a rousing 21-gun salute. Naya Washington performed the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and the 13th USCT retired the colors.
The crowd dispersed to view the parks' five displays and others went to tour other Civil War sites of interest in Helena.