I’ve got a bit more left to share with you about Magnolia Cemetery. I was able to learn a little bit more about why it looks the way it does.
As you make the left turn into the cemetery, there’s an area to the left with grave markers in a half circle around a flagpole.
A plaque nearby (see photo below) helped explain why the arrangement of grave markers at Magnolia in several places seemed off kilter. It’s because several are displaced or missing.
One of the interpretive panels at the front gate also stated that “stream bank erosion and water moving under the soft soil exposed graves and caused headstones to topple. Stones were taken or damaged by thieves and vandals.” As a result, concerned Helena residents Para Conner and Cleo Dunnings formed the Magnolia Cemetery Association in 1989. Since then, work has been done to “remedy erosion, improve drainage, and repair damage.
I didn’t go past the bend in the road in the cemetery where it disappears into the woods. I was a little uneasy about going into an area that I couldn’t see. That’s happened during a few of my other cemetery visits in rural areas. Some might consider that silly, but I always prioritize my personal safety above my curiosity when cemetery hopping.
There are five government-issued markers for World War I veterans near the flagpole. All of these men served in World War I in varying capacities. None had memorials on Find a Grave so I created them. One fellow emerged among them with a story I want to share with you.
The Pioneer Infantries of World War I
When America entered World War I in April 1917, many African-Americans rushed to enlist. On July 5, 1917, over 700,000 African-Americans had registered. They were placed mostly into service units, which meant being assigned different labor-intensive tasks. These units were not trained to fight. Sadly, some feared that if these men were trained and armed, they might challenge white supremacy. Several of these regiments were called Pioneer units and consisted of engineers and construction managers. They primarily built bridges and roads, while maintaining railroads right behind the front lines.
The son of Helena resident Patsie Gibbs, Anderson Rasberry (living in Rolling Fork, Miss.) reported to his local draft board and was sent to Camp Funston in Kansas in July 1918. A railroad worker, Anderson was about 30, and had a wife and son. He would join the 805th Pioneer Infantry, Supply Company.
If you want an in-depth history of the 805th and their service in France, you can read it all here in this publication, “Victory: History of the 805th Pioneer Infantry, American Expeditionary Forces” by Paul Southworth Bliss. Known as the Bearcats, the 805th landed in France in July 1918 and served in Europe until July 1919. The division saw 39 days of action.
After spending a few months at Camp Funston (some of the 805th left for France earlier), Anderson and his fellow Supply Company soldiers left in September 2018 from Quebec, Canada on the Saxonia, a former passenger ship of the British Cunard Line. I wonder what Anderson was thinking as the ship pulled into the ports of Liverpool and Southampton, England, before arriving in Le Havre, France. The soldiers were then sent to Clermont-en Argonne.
The Supply Company spent most of its time in and around the hill known as Butte Ste. Anne. It was their job to keep the soldiers supplied with everything from proper garments to food to equipment. I don’t know specifically what Anderson did or if he was treated well by the white officers in charge of the companies within the 805th. I did read that in general, American black soldiers were treated better by the French soldiers and locals than their white American military counterparts.
This is the best picture I could find of the 805th Supply Company. I don’t know where Anderson is located among the group.
Return to America
The 805th began its journey home on June 17, 1919 on the USS Zeppelin, originally a German passenger liner that came into American military possession during World War I. I found an article from the July 9, 1919 edition of the Dispatch-Republican (Clay, Kansas) describing the warm welcome the 805th and 806th received from Kansas-based military officials when they arrived in New York City. White Naval aviators were also returning that day on the Zeppelin, the article points out, so the festivities were likely primarily for them.
The 805th and 806th soldiers were taken to Camp Upton in Long Island for a celebration. I am posting just a portion of the article here. The Bearcats jazz band, which had received glowing reviews while in France, performed to show their appreciation.
Anderson returned to Mississippi and his family, getting a job in a cotton mill, according to the 1920 U.S. Census. I wonder if he often shared his war stories with family and friends over the next years.
The only other record I could find for Anderson was his death certificate. Anderson died on Dec. 26, 1940 in the hospital at Helena due to a ruptured peptic ulcer. He was 51 years old.
Supreme Royal Circle of Friends of the World
Several markers at Magnolia Cemetery bear the insignia of the Supreme Royal Circle of Friends of the World (RCF). Here’s one of them. Until I visited Magnolia, I had never seen one before.
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the Supreme Royal Circle of Friends of the World was an African-American fraternal organization founded in 1909 in Helena. Its purpose was to supply insurance to African-Americans, but the RCF was also dedicated to the moral, physical, social, and economic welfare of its members. Men and women were equal members. The RCF grew rapidly across the Southern states and spread across the nation.
The first recruitment meeting of the RCF was held in Helena September 1–3, 1909 with a joining fee of $2.50. Dues were $1 every quarter, and $300 was paid at the death of a member. Other benefits included sick pay from $1 to $5 a week. The RCF also supplied a distinctive headstone for members, featuring a lion sitting atop a triangle with the letters RCF in the points of the triangle.
In 1910, RCF founding president Dr. Richard A. Williams started a newspaper, the Royal Messenger, published twice a month. By 1911, there were 300 lodges, called circles, scattered throughout Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Oklahoma.
By 1918, the organization had outgrown its Helena facilities, and Dr. Williams moved operations to Chicago. There, the group built its Supreme Temple and expanded facilities. In 1921, the RCF opened two hospitals for African-Americans, one in Memphis, Tenn. and the other in Little Rock, Ark. Members received free care at the hospitals.
Dr. Williams died on Sept. 27, 1944. The Chicago Defender reported that the RCF had more than 100,000 members and over $500,000 in assets. This may not have been accurate because on Oct. 12, 1947, the RCF was in bankruptcy. The Supreme Temple was auctioned off as part of the liquidation of assets.
One Stone, One Life
As I did research on some of the RCF markers at Magnolia, I found very little information about the people whose names were on the stones. For some like Maria Moore and Arthur Whittaker (see photos below), there was no information at all.
It’s sobering to think that a single stone could be the only evidence remaining of a life lived. Yet here they are, some of them over 100 years later. By joining the RCF, they were guaranteed a marker. A little piece of history that for some, is all that is left to show they were here. But it means so much.
That’s just one reason why cemeteries are still so important and must be preserved.
Next week, I’ll be exploring nearby Maple Hill Cemetery.
Thank you .