Northern Benevolent Organizations and the Freedmen’s Bureau

When the Union army marched into Helena in July, 1862, about 2,000 fugitive slaves followed the army into the city. When the Union army stayed, more freedom seekers sought protection behind Union lines in Helena. The tide of refugees swelled again after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

At first the army alone dealt with the fugitive slaves, finding them work and making sure that they had adequate food, clothing and medical care. As the war progressed a number of benevolent and aid societies came forward to help Freedmen adjust to their new place in society. It would be 1865 before the government established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands for the expressed purpose of aiding Freedmen. By that time, there were well-established procedures in Helena for coping with refugees.

Several northern benevolent organizations worked to improve the health, education and moral welfare of the Freedmen in Helena, among them the Western Sanitary Commission, North Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission, Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission, American Missionary Association and The Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends.

The Western Sanitary Commission arrived in Helena in late 1862. Anne Wittenmeyer, a nurse associated with the Commission, visited Helena in December 1862 and observed conditions firsthand. Her report may well have been responsible for the Commission’s decision to send supplies and aid to hospital facilities in Helena. The Commission’s president, James Yeatman, also made an inspection of the Mississippi Valley. While Mrs. Wittenmeyer’s visit was focused on hospitals, Yeatman’s was an overall assessment of the condition of the Freedmen within Union lines. He was to ascertain what could be done to improve their condition and how his organization could help.

The organization that may have had the most impact on Helena was the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends, the Quakers who came to teach school and stayed to build a college. The influx of Freedmen into Helena coupled with sickness in the overcrowded city quickly produced a large number of orphan children. General Napoleon B. Buford, commander of the District of Eastern Arkansas ordered Elkanah Beard, who was in Helena with the Society of Friends, to take charge of the destitute Freedmen in Helena and to provide a home for orphaned children of Freedmen. This was the humble beginning of what would become Southland College.
The orphan asylum and school operated in Helena for two years. After the war, most of the property confiscated by the army was returned to its owners, including St. John’s Episcopal Church, which housed the Quaker school and orphan asylum. The Reverend Otis B. Hackett of St. John’s wrote in his diary on January 1, 1866: “On my arrival I found the Church still occupied as a negro school house. Application was made to the proper authorities for its restoration . . .”

Without the church building the children would again be homeless. At the urging of Colonel Charles Bentzoni, then-commander at Helena, 30 acres was purchased in Phillips County for a new school. The officers and men of the 56th U.S. Colored Infantry contributed the $900 needed to purchase the property. The men of the 56th also contributed labor. By the time the school was moved to the new site, frame buildings had been constructed and were ready for occupancy. Over the next few years, additional acreage was added until the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends owned 167 acres.

Calvin and Alida Clark were among those sent to Arkansas by the Indiana Society of Friends. The Clarks worked tirelessly with the orphan asylum in Helena and then transferred that energy to the new school. The couple remained in Phillips County until 1886. During their tenure the fledgling orphan asylum became a boarding school for children and a normal school that trained teachers for African American schools across the South.

The first permanent structures were built on the Southland campus with the aid of funding from the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Bureau promised $5,000 toward the construction but only provided $3,000. The Clarks raised the remainder from the Society of Friends in England and Ireland. When the Freedmen’s Bureau closed down in 1869, declaring that the emergency was over, funding for the school fell to the Missionary Board of the Indiana Yearly Meeting. The Clarks were asked to stay on, which they did. The Friends operated Southland College until it closed in 1925.

Other organizations played a lesser role in Helena. Mr. S. Johnson, Miss M.A. Carter and Miss H. Baldwin are listed in a June 1865, Freedmen’s Bureau report as being employed as teachers. Mr. Johnson was assigned to Helena by the North Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission based in Chicago. The two women were assigned to Helena via the Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission based in Cincinnati. The Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends sent another three teachers who, interestingly, were paid $5.00 a month more than the other teachers. In June 1865, the six teachers taught 520 pupils.

The Freedmen’s Bureau elevated Mr. S. Johnson to Superintendent of Schools for the Helena District. Overall, the schools in Helena seem to have been successful, their population growing from 227 to 520 between January and June 1865. Captain Henry Sweeny, Superintendent of Freedmen in Helena, reported, “The teachers in these schools are deserving of all praise, and the progress made by the scholars, surprising, it is extraordinary to see with what avidity the little ones pursue knowledge, and how rapidly they learn.”

The Freedmen’s Bureau did more than just help provide schools; it worked with landowners to insure that fair labor contracts were made with individuals seeking work. It also provided rations for individuals who did not have the means to feed themselves. The June 1865, report listed 3,000 rations needed for Freedmen and 1,500 rations needed for white refugees in Helena.

The tone of Reconstruction changed after 1868, but the system of sharecropping, established soon after the end of the Civil War with the blessing of the Freedmen’s Bureau, defined the tenant farming arrangement that remained the norm well into the twentieth century. The planter-tenant-merchant-based enterprise created a system that generally left the tenant in debt to the plantation store, and made it all too easy for unscrupulous planters to cheat Freedmen. A Freedmen’s Bureau agent wrote in 1866, “Many of the colored people are being swindled out of their year’s work and the cold winter which is approaching will find them destitute of even the common necessities of life.”