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OPINION | REX NELSON: Helena’s historic cemeteries

by Rex Nelson | July 23, 2022 at 2:54 a.m.

We turn left and drive through the familiar gates of Maple Hill Cemetery at Helena, ready to revisit one of this state's most historic spots.

Covering 37 acres on Crowley's Ridge, the cemetery was established in 1865 with many of the features of a large park. The posts on either side of the entrance were donated in 1914. The largest monument in the cemetery is the Coolidge Monument, placed by Henry Coolidge on the family plot. The granite column rises 21 feet and has a life-size sculpture of Coolidge on top.

I've come here with longtime Helena business and civic leader Walter Morris Jr., who helps keep up the city's cemeteries. Like other Delta towns, Helena has separate cemeteries for white Protestants, Black Protestants, Catholics and Jews.

The Mississippi River was a corridor into the American heartland, bringing Jewish, Syrian and Lebanese merchants to sell to the thousands of sharecroppers and tenant farmers in an era when cotton was king. The Irish and Italians also came to the Delta, bringing with them their Catholic religion. The Chinese came to build railroads and later owned grocery stores across both the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta.

In one corner of Maple Hill is Confederate Cemetery, which contains the graves of Confederate soldiers, the grave of Confederate Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne and two memorials. Cleburne has a bit of a cult following among those who are interested in Civil War history. Out-of-state license plates can often be seen on the automobiles making the steep climb up to the gravesite.

"The cemetery was created in 1869 by the Phillips County Memorial Association when the bodies of 73 known and 29 unnamed Confederate soldiers were moved into a one-acre portion of Maple Hill," writes Arkansas historian David Sesser. "Most of these men died at the Battle of Helena on July 4, 1863, or from wounds shortly after. The body of Cleburne was moved to the cemetery and re-interred in 1870. A prewar resident of Helena, he was killed at the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee on Nov. 30, 1864, and was originally buried in Ashwood, Tenn.

"After the initial interments were made, the Phillips County Memorial Association began to raise money for two monuments to be placed at the site. After years of fundraising, the association dedicated a monument in the cemetery to Cleburne in 1891. Known as the Cleburne Memorial, it's a marble shaft with a concrete base. The monument stands next to his grave and contains a mixture of Confederate and Irish symbols. It also lists a number of the battles in which Cleburne participated."

A separate monument to all of the Confederate soldiers buried at the cemetery was dedicated on Decoration Day 1892. The granite shaft has a marble statue of a Confederate soldier on top. The inscriptions list battles in which Arkansas troops saw action.

"A number of former Confederate soldiers were buried in the cemetery after the war," Sesser writes. "The latest interments were made in 2005 when the remains of six Confederate soldiers uncovered near Battery D were re-interred. No Union soldiers are buried in the cemetery, as all of the bodies of the Union soldiers who lost their lives in Helena during the war were transferred to national cemeteries in the 1860s and 1870s.

"Each spring, a celebration of Cleburne and other soldiers interred in the cemetery is held. The cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places on May 3, 1996."

We leave Maple Hill and take a left. Just down the road is St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery. The first Catholic church in Helena burned in 1854 and was replaced two years later by a wood-frame church. The parish grew rapidly in the years just before the Civil War due to an influx of Irish immigrants. In 1857, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth arrived at the invitation of Bishop Andrew Byrne. They established a convent and Sacred Heart Academy. The school closed in 1968. The boarding portion of the school had closed in the 1950s.

Just past the Catholic cemetery is Temple Beth El Cemetery, which covers 2.5 acres. It's ringed by iron fencing and features a prominent historical marker. There are more than 300 marked graves with the earliest dating to 1862. This cemetery opened in 1875, and graves were moved from the city's first Jewish cemetery, which was an informal site near Magnolia Cemetery.

Magnolia, a short drive away, is the city's African American cemetery. Magnolia and Maple Hill cemeteries once comprised a single city cemetery with separate sections for whites and Blacks. What first was known as Evergreen Cemetery was reorganized in 1898 as Maple Hill. The next year, 15 Black residents of Helena purchased the current site of Magnolia Cemetery for $400.

According to Preserve Arkansas: "The cemetery is an important burial ground for Helena's African American community. It's the resting place for one of the first Black legislators in Arkansas, W.H. Grey, as well as businessmen, philanthropists, newspapermen, blues musicians, reverends, military veterans and members of pioneering Black families. The graves are marked by elaborate marble as well as hand-carved concrete markers.

"Nineteen of the cemetery's 36 acres are situated on the western downward slope of Crowley's Ridge. Erosion and flooding have damaged much of the cemetery. The cemetery also faces issues of vandalism and neglect, limited funding for restoration and migration of communities out of Arkansas during and after World War II, leaving few people to remember the families buried there."

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at

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