We crossed the Mississippi River (and the border between Mississippi and Arkansas), heading for Helena-West Helena, Ark. The two cities consolidated in 2006 into one. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll refer to it as Helena. It was founded in 1833 by Nicholas Rightor and is named after the daughter of Sylvanus Phillips, an early settler of Phillips County and the county’s name sake.
A major Civil War battle did take place here. In June 1863, Confederate Commander Theophilus Holmes planned and executed three failed attacks on the Union-held town. Confederates withdrew on July 4, 1863. There were 1,636 Confederate casualties and 205 Union casualties.
The Blues Highway
From 1906 to 1946, Helena was a terminal point on the former Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad. A thriving blues community developed there in the 1940s and 1950s, explaining why we saw the Blues Highway earlier that day at Barbee Cemetery.
In November 1941, a white businessman established the town’s first radio station, KFFA. A group of blues musicians were given a one-hour radio spot on the condition that they gain a sponsor. King Biscuit Flour agreed to do it. The King Biscuit Entertainers were sponsored, as well as the show King Biscuit Time, featuring blues musicians. It’s still going strong today.
Helena’s population of about 10,500 is about 75 percent African-American and has some historic cemeteries that I wanted to visit. Magnolia Cemetery has a story to tell and the community has been working hard in recent years on finding new ways of sharing it.
According to Find a Grave, Magnolia Cemetery has 90 memorials but I know there are many more unmarked graves and some newer ones yet to be recorded.
Some recently-created panels located outside the gates describe Magnolia Cemetery’s history. This is something I don’t often see at an African-American cemetery and I was happy to learn more.
Magnolia Cemetery was originally part of segregated Evergreen Cemetery. The Evergreen Cemetery Company purchased land from three prominent Helena families to establish Evergreen in 1870. Unfortunately, 20 years later, both white and black sections of the cemetery were in poor condition. A group of African-American men formed the Magnolia Cemetery Association in 1899, purchasing the black section for $400.
If you’re standing inside the gates, you can see the area of Magnolia Cemetery’s more recent burials located up the hill. I went there last. The older burials are to the left and can be found on both sides of a long road.
I observed that there is no order to where people are buried at Magnolia. That sounds like a criticism but it isn’t meant to be. African-American cemeteries were not easy to maintain for a number of reasons. Lack of funds and manpower were part of that. People took care of it as best they could when they could. It had been recently mowed, which is more than I can say for many cemeteries I visit.
A Homemade Tribute
The first grave I photographed was this homemade one for Nelma Lee Jackson. Born in 1923 to cotton farmer Frank Jackson and Nellie Lewis Jackson, Nelma was one of three children. According to the 1940 U.S. Census, Frank worked on a WPA (Works Progress Administration) road construction crew and Nellie was a cook in a restaurant. Nelba had completed at least sixth grade.
Unfortunately, Nelba contracted tuberculosis. Because of her race, it was likely difficult for her to get good medical treatment in rural Arkansas. She was working as a waitress at the Dreamland Cafe in nearby Watson, Ark. when she died on Oct. 15, 1943. Her marker says Oct. 14, 1943. Her marker stands by itself. If her parents are buried there, the graves are not marked.
Died in the Hospital
You can get a glimpse of the grave marker for Daisy Caradine Taylor behind Nelba’s. Born in Mississippi in 1910, Daisy Caradine’s parents were mill worker Mose Caradine and Carrie Braxton Caradine. The Cardines were “mulatto”, an antiquated term for a mixed race background. At some point, she married Herman Taylor. I don’t know if they had any children together as I could not find census records for them.
In January 1943, Daisy went to Baptist State Hospital (now known as Arkansas Baptist Hospital) in Little Rock to have an operation to remove several large fibroids from her uterus. This is a procedure that can be done with outpatient surgery today. Already suffering from anemia and hypertension, Daisy was put under anesthesia and went into shock. She died on January 15, 1943 at age 32.
The Proffitt Women
Behind these two graves is the Proffitt plot containing three grave markers, surrounded by a low block wall and a chain link gate. It reminded me of some of the plots at Laurel Grove South Cemetery, an African-American cemetery in Savannah, Ga.
The plot contains the graves of Aria Wright Proffitt (1872-1960), her daughter Elizabeth (1910-1913), and Aria’s daughter-in-law Emma Dallas Proffitt (1907-1965). Born in Arkansas, Aria was the daughter of Thomas Wright and Annie Kennell Wright, one of seven children.
Aria’s husband, Moses “Mose” Proffitt has an interesting background. He enlisted with the 1st Regiment Infantry of the U.S. Colored Troops in 1863. I’m not sure when. It later became the 46th U.S. Colored Troops in 1864. When he returned to Helena, he resumed life as a farmer and married Mariah Jane Williamson in 1869 and they had at least three children together.
I’m not sure if Mariah died or they divorced. But Mose married Aria on March 13, 1893. Born in 1837, Mose was considerably older than Aria. He began receiving a pension for his military service in 1891. They had four children together, Moses Jr., Willie, Hosea, and Elizabeth. I think Willie died in childhood as I can find no record of him beyond the 1900 U.S. Census.
According to Elizabeth’s marker, she was born in 1910 and died in 1913. However, she appears in the 1910 U.S. Census as being four years old at the time. That is the only record I could find for her anywhere. I believe this marker came much later, in the 1960s when her mother and aunt passed away. According to the census, Mose was a minister by that time and Moses Jr. was working in a dry goods store in Helena.
I don’t have an exact date but because Aria began receiving a widow’s pension in 1924, I believe that’s the year Mose died. He had a will drawn up in May 1920, leaving behind his property to Aria, Moses Jr., and Hosea. It was probated in November 1924. I suspect he may be buried in the family plot with no marker, but I’m not sure.
Aria died in 1960. Ancestry has her death date as Sept. 12, 1960 but I can find no record of it. She was 87.
Aria must have been proud of her sons. Moses Jr. received an accounting degree at Howard University and served in the U.S. Army during World War II. In the 60s, he helped organize Seaway National Bank in Chicago. He died in Chicago on Sept. 10, 1985 but I don’t know where he is buried.
Hosea also attended Howard University and went on to get a degree in dentistry. He returned to Helena and served the community in that capacity for 56 years. He married his wife, Emma Dallas, in the 1930s. Aria lived with them during the 1940s.
Emma’s death was sudden and tragic. At 3 a.m. on Jan. 14, 1965, the home she shared with Hosea in Helena caught on fire. Firemen managed to pull Hosea out of the home through a window and he survived. Emma, her mother, and her sister, were trapped inside and perished. Emma was only 57.
Hosea later remarried and continued to serve Helena as a devoted dentist. He died 20 days after his older brother, Moses, on Sept. 29, 1985. I don’t know where he is buried either.
The Tailor’s Wife
The last grave I wanted to share is that of Mattie Garrett. She is in a shaded plot off to the side bordered by cement blocks .
Born in 1890 to Ed Lawrence and Rosie Richardson Lawrence, Mattie married James Garrett in 1910. He worked as a presser/tailor in a retail store, a skilled trade. According to the 1920 U.S. Census, they had four children. The youngest was only seven months old at the time the census was recorded.
Mattie died on Dec. 4, 1920. Her death certificate lists her cause of death as “pelvic peritonitis”, which I had never heard of before. It’s defined as inflammation involving the peritoneum surrounding the uterus and Fallopian tubes. Since she had given birth that year to a son, Richard, I wonder if it was related to that. Again, good medical care was likely hard to find for persons of color in rural Arkansas in the 1920s. Another young woman, gone in her prime like Daisy Taylor. Her father, Ed, would die a year later. He is buried near her.
Honoring Six Lives
I didn’t have a plan for how this blog post would unfold. I more or less followed the pictures. The African-American women of Helena lived hard lives, something I had suspected but saw proven as the research revealed it. Many like Daisy died young, while others like Aria managed to live a long life and raise sons who made their mark in the world. Like the graves scattered about the cemetery, there is no rhyme or reason to the hands they were dealt
It’s my honor to share their stories here in hopes they will not be forgotten.
Join me soon for Part II as I make my way further down the road into Magnolia Cemetery.