African American roots in the Delta

Blues from the Arkansas Side panel (Delta Sounds Exhibit) at Delta Cultural Center
Blues from the Arkansas Side panel (Delta Sounds Exhibit) at Delta Cultural Center

African American families and communities have been a major part of the fabric of the Arkansas Delta for the past two centuries, creating a rich heritage filled with tribulations and triumphs.

Many of the traditions of African Americans in the region are not cataloged in museums. A journey through their multi-faceted legacy challenges visitors to dig deep to explore the music, stories, cuisine and land that define a people and their shared experiences.

There is no better way to get to the heart of African American heritage than through the music that came out of the fields, made its way into churches and juke joints, and eventually made its way up the Mississippi River as the Delta blues.  African American music contributions are legendary and can be explored through “Delta Sounds” at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena. Along with insights into the origins of the blues, exhibits feature such giants as Sonny Boy Williamson, Louis Jordan, Al Green, Robert Lockwood Jr., Robert Nighthawk, James Cotton, and Albert King, along with a daily broadcast of King Biscuit Time, the longest-running blues music program in the country.

Freedom Park, a recent addition in Helena, takes visitors to a time when songs that ultimately became the blues most likely came from enslaved laborers. Formerly the location of a Civil War contraband camp, this park includes five major exhibits that follow the journey of African Americans from fugitive slaves to freedom. It is the first site in Arkansas designated as part of the National Park Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program.

Some of the oldest African American heritage in Helena can be found in Magnolia Cemetery, with burials dating to 1850. The cemetery serves as the final resting place for four black legislators during the Reconstruction Era, as well as several blues musicians.

Elaine Massacre Memorial at Helena

The newest stop for visitors in Helena commemorates the darkest chapter in Arkansas Delta history. An Elaine Massacre Memorial in Court Square Park was dedicated in 2019 on the centennial anniversary of atrocities that began during a meeting of black sharecroppers at a church near Elaine, just south of Helena. Though accounts vary, a shootout quickly escalated into mob violence that left five white people dead and estimates of African Americans killed ranging into the hundreds.

From Helena, it is an easy drive to the town of Elaine itself, referred to by many as the “Motherland of Civil Rights.” Considered the deadliest racial confrontation in Arkansas, and perhaps nationally, the Elaine Massacre is remembered here through a Legacy Center and other activities.

Other museums

Other regularly open museums with African American exhibits include the Lakeport Plantation near Lake Village, with stories of African Americans from enslaved labor to tenant farming to northern migration; the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, celebrating the first integrated agricultural union; the Northern Ohio School at Parkin Archeological State Park, built for children of black millworkers; the Central Delta Depot Museum at Brinkley, including a Louis Jordan exhibit, and the St. Francis County Museum in Forrest City, featuring an exhibit on Scott Bond, Arkansas’s first black millionaire.

Re-creation of the childhood home of John Johnson in Arkansas City

Only a small portion of African American stories are told through formal museums. Often outstanding collections are housed outside of typical structures and are open by chance or by appointment. All are worth the extra effort of making a phone call to gain admission. Among them, the Floyd Brown-Fargo Agricultural School Museum is a highlight. Owned and operated by the Arkansas Land and Community Development Corporation, exhibits focus on the private black residential high school that served thousands of students for some 30 years in the early 1900s. Equally worthy of a visit, the John Johnson Museum and Educational Center in Arkansas City, located in Johnson’s re-created childhood home, celebrates the achievements of the man who founded the largest black publishing company in the world, including Ebony and Jet magazines. Another possible stop, the African American Cultural Center in the E. Boone Watson Community Center in Jonesboro, includes a tribute to Jonesboro native Dr. Debbye Turner Bell, Miss America 1990.

Final resting places

Angel in the Field at George Berry Washington burial site near Earle

African American cemeteries are scattered throughout the Arkansas Delta and often provide great insights into the African American heritage of the region. Many have outstanding examples of funerary art, as well as fraternal headstones. Grave decorations offer a unique glimpse of traditional African American burial rituals and traditions. Some even recognize successes in life, such as the Flying V guitar image that adorns the grave of legendary blues musician Albert King at Paradise Gardens Cemetery in Edmonson south of West Memphis.

One of the more unusual memorials in the region, the “Angel in the Field” north of Earle, marks the grave of George Berry Washington, a former slave who became a major landowner by the time of his death in 1928. This 13-foot statue sits atop a 10-foot Indian mound and should be viewed only from the highway.

Soil and soul music trail

Sister Rosetta Tharpe music trail marker at Cotton Plant near Brinkley

Unfortunately, many of the sites associated with the development of African American music traditions are long gone. Visitors can get a sense of the music heritage of the region, however, by following the Soil and Soul Music Trail, a series of interpretive markers honoring the people, places, and events that helped shape American music. One of the most notable markers is at Twist, where B. B. King ran back into a burning nightclub to rescue his guitar. Later he learned that the fire started during a fight over a woman named Lucille. From that point forward, he named all his guitars “Lucille” as a reminder never to do something so foolish again.

Many other legendary African American stories are waiting to be discovered during a trip through the Arkansas Delta region. For more information, visit the Arkansas Delta Byways website.