When a visitor enters the community of Helena-West Helena, passing row after row of abandoned stores, closed factories, decaying homes, and empty streets, it is hard to imagine that this was once one of the most vibrant towns in Arkansas. Cherry Street, the five block main street that was once the heart of the town’s small businesses, seems like a deserted movie set. On each side of the street sit rows of two story buildings many of which are well over a century old, and from a distance seem quite serviceable. But passing by these buildings you discover that most have been long abandoned, their display windows vacant, or filled with discarded clothing or long-ago Christmas decorations.
Helena-West Helena is emblematic of hundreds, perhaps thousands of communities in America that are in similar straits. By understanding this community, it will help you understand how communities are born, thrive, decline, and die, whether they are a small town, a large city, or even a neighborhood.
Helen- West Helena, as the name implies, were once two separate communities. Helena was the original town and West Helena, once part of Helena, separated itself in early twentieth century in a political dispute. Helena was founded in the early nineteenth century, a time when many planters were crossing the Mississippi into Arkansas seeking rich, virgin, land on which to grow cotton. With cotton came slave labor. Black men, women and children, often forced to march hundreds of miles into the Delta, worked in the swampy, snake and alligator infested waters, clearing trees, building ditches, constructing homes and then clearing the fields on which cotton was planted and harvested. The Civil War ended legal slavery. Union soldiers occupied Helena, many of them black. After the war, the community prospered and many local blacks became successful teachers, ministers, businessmen, politicians, doctors and dentists.
But in the 1890s, legal segregation came to Helena, as it did to the rest of the American South. Blacks were legally excluded from political office in the community and were regarded as second-class citizens. In Phillips County, many black farmers, who worked the land of white planters for a share of the crop when it was sold, were often cheated out of their share.
In 1919, one of the worst race riots in American history erupted in Phillips County. Blacks farmers, tired of being cheated by white planters, organized a union and hired a white lawyer to represent them and sue their landlords. At the end of October, as a group of black farmers were meeting in a church white law enforcement officials interrupted the meeting and a confrontation developed. Gunfire was exchanged and a white man was killed. Immediately the sheriff called for whites to arm themselves and hunt “ Mr. nigger in his lair.” Before the killing stopped, an estimated 70-80 blacks were dead (some said as many as 200) and almost 700 were arrested. Five whites died in the riot, at least two of who were killed by the indiscriminate firing by other whites. The massacre reinforced the racial barriers that existed in the town and there were no further confrontations until the 1960s when the Civil Rights movement arrived in Helena.
After World War II, Helena reached its heyday. The population of the town was about 25,000 while the county had almost 50,000. Factories employed almost 4000 workers. Although racial segregation remained, race relations were cordial on the surface despite the tension underneath. Blacks attended separate schools, watched movies in separate theaters, drank from separate public water fountains and waited in separate waiting rooms at the bus station. In West Helena, as one African American resident put it, “The railroad track separated us from the whites,. Over there was white town and on the other side was black town. And you couldn’t go over there without a white person’s permission”
In the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement came to Helena. The Freedom Riders arrived in town. The black community organized demonstrations and boycotts that lasted into the 1970s. The public schools were integrated and many white children attended at first. But hundreds of whites supported a private school for their children in which no black children attended.
Politically, whites continued to control the town until the local election laws were challenged in court. Judge L.T. Simes recalled the outcome. “I never will forget it. The case made its way to the Supreme Court and in a landmark decision, struck down West Helena’s voting laws. In 1983, blacks were able to elect four members to city council for the first time.
Brian Miller an African American attorney, whose great grandfather settled in Helena after the Civil War, grew up in the last good era of Helena. “I tell people all of the time that from my upbringing I think it was the best upbringing anybody could ever have. My education was world class. We could go downtown and shop. We had movie theaters. We had skating rinks, we had bowling. There were a lot of things for children to do.” Mary Louise Fiser noted that during the community’s heyday, “the stores were so crowded on Saturday night that you could hardly find a parking place.”
By the 1980s, it was becoming clear that the town was declining. Factories were closing as market conditions were changing. A labor dispute led to the departure of the Mohawk Rubber Company, one of the major employers of the town. Mechanization and consolidation in the agricultural fields meant more jobs were lost. Small farmers were unable to compete. As jobs were lost, people began to move out of the community. Phil Baldwin, the CEO and President of Southern Bancorp notes that when decline happens, “you began to lose your middle class. You lose your small business owners. You lose your educators. You lose the people who are that really are the fabric to hold the community together.” Brian Miller who was working in Memphis observed: “It seemed that every time I would come home, some new store would have closed, some new family that I knew had moved away. It wasn’t that gradual. It happened fairly quickly. I think we went through one period where I mean store after store started closing and then we went through a period that family after family started moving Its not that we looked up and the town changed. It was if we saw it happening right before our eyes. “
The decline continued into the year 2000. By then Helena and West Helena had a combined population some 14,000, almost half of what it was in the 1950s. With unemployment poverty increased until almost 40 percent of the county lived below the poverty line. The media income for Phillips County is around 13,000 a year, about 1/3 of the national average. With poverty came an increase in crime, drug and alcohol use, and teen pregnancy.. The dropout rate in high school hovered near 40%. Small business after small business closed. Helena lost a good deal of its tax base. West Helena, which had a number of chain stores, was economically better off but politically in chaos. The racial divide on the West Helena city council and school board was deep. There were allegations of improper use of funds. Eventually the state had to enter and take over the management of the schools. The community had reached its lowest point.
Despite this Phil Baldwin, the CEO and President of Southern Bancorp, as well as a number of local community leaders, believed that the town could still be saved. “But it wasn’t outsiders who were going to do it ; it was the towns- people themselves. We could provide some infrastructure- and there was no question we needed some capital- but the people of the town would have to pull themselves out of the morass.” And Mayor James Valley noted, “What we needed was someone to help this community help itself.”
One of the first steps upward was the introduction of a KIPP school into the community. KIPP, meaning the Knowledge is Power Program, is a charter school founded by teachers to help bring up the academic levels of communities that are scholastically floundering. KIPP has a track record of raising the academic levels of impoverished students throughout the country.
Community leaders met with KIPP officials. Cathy Cunningham, a local community leader, remembered, “KIPP was looking around the Delta to see where they might open a school. After we met with them, they didn’t look anywhere else. “
In 2004, KIPP opened a school in Helena. At the same time, Southern Bancorp, in conjunction with the Walton Foundation, met with a number of community leaders. Their mission was to organize a comprehensive plan for community recovery. “This wasn’t something that happen overnight,” Joe Black, Vice President of Southern Financial Partners, says, “We asked people to imagine what the town could be like in 15 to 20 years from now- and what they saw as their priorities.” Once we did this, the Walton Foundation agreed to help finance ventures that would help accomplish that goal. They ranged from a sweet potato storage bin so that small farmers keep their farms by storing and selling sweet potatoes. The community and the Walton Foundation raised or contributed almost a million dollars jointly to finance a Boys and Girls Club so that for the first time in twenty years young people would have not only a place to play, but a place where they could get guidance and academic tutoring,. One of the driving forces to make this project a reality was Doug Friedlander, a Teach for America teacher who, with other teachers and local people, made the Club a reality.
The following year, a political revolt exploded in the town. For almost a hundred years, Helena and west Helena had their own city councils and mayors. When black gained political power in the 1990s in West Helena, racial tension increased rather than diminished. In 2005, five of the councilmen gained office because they had exploited a little known change in the election law filing date that enabled them to run without any opposition. By the time challengers tried to oppose them, they discovered that the deadline had passed. The present Mayor James Valley recalled. “The black and the white community were both angry at the way this gang of five took office and the way they ran it. Like it was their own personal kingdom. The only way to kick them out of office was for the two towns to consolidate. Then we would have new elections and instead of two councils and two mayors, there would only be one.” A special election was called and consolidation won the support of both black and white voters. A new city council and mayor were elected. The former West Helena councilmen and mayor were defeated.
In the past year, there has been a burst of economic activity. Several new restaurants have opened. The academic achievements of students have dramatically improved, especially at KIPP. A public transportation system is up and running. Local investors have financed a bio-diesel plant, which will soon open. Tourism is increasing and the blues festival continues to attract tens of thousands of people each year. Many abandoned buildings have been torn down.
But even as new life enters the community, new life also leaves it. Every year, hundreds of students graduate from the high school or the local community college. Most say they will never return, except to visit. There are no jobs to match the skills they have learned; still not enough recreational facilities for themselves and their children. Phil Baldwin says the true test of success at revival will be when the graduates return to the community. “We’re still a long way from there. We have accomplished a lot of things these past three years but I feel that our biggest accomplishment so far is hope. People have begun to hope. But, despite our progress, we still have a long, long way to go.