February 29, 2016

Events Feature Underground Railroad and Abolitionist Movement

Feb. 29, 2016 | UAMS celebrated diversity in February with two events in honor of Black History Month.

Historian and longtime College of Pharmacy faculty member Jonathan Wolfe, Ph.D., traced connections in his family to the Underground Railroad and the Battle of Helena in Arkansas during the Civil War while speaking Feb. 18 at the annual UAMS Black History Month commemoration.

The event was hosted by the Chancellor’s Committee for Diversity, the UAMS Center for Diversity Affairs, the UAMS Library and the Historical Research Center.

Then on Feb. 24 the Chancellor’s Committee for Diversity and the UAMS Center for Diversity Affair presented “Voices of a Movement,” in the Fred Smith Auditorium on the 12th floor of the Jackson T. Spine and Neurosciences Institute.

The performance featured a dramatic and vocal music presentation on the abolitionist movement in America by the Drama Department and Madrigals from Little Rock’s Parkview High School.

Billy Thomas-web

Billy Thomas, M.D., vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, discusses the importance of commemorating black history month at UAMS.

In the presentation about Helena’s designation as the first site in Arkansas to be designated for inclusion on the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network, Wolfe said connecting stories of the past to the present can inform our understanding of current events and bolster shared values.

“For diversity to really work there has to be a sharing of stories and insight,” he said. “Our stories are where we state, know and express our values.”

Wolfe described Helena’s location as a prime port on the Mississippi River between Memphis and Vicksburg, Mississippi, in a time when rivers were the “highways” for transportation. With a population of about 1,000 in the early 1860s, Helena was one of the largest cities in Arkansas and the surrounding county also had one of the highest concentrations of slaves in the state, he said.

Union forces occupied the city in 1862. “Aggressive” patrolling of the countryside continued as soldiers hunted for rebel soldiers but at the same time recruited slaves as spies or scouts as well as positioning the Union-occupied city as receptive to fleeing slaves.

Among the Union forces was Wolfe’s great great uncle George Edward Flanders, an Army private whose family had moved to Kansas to form an abolitionist settlement. Wolfe read a letter from Flanders to his mother where he described the humid, miserable summer climate of Helena and the Union’s state of readiness for an attack.

Confederate forces attempted to retake Helena on July 4, 1863. Although the rebels outnumbered the Union garrison, Wolfe said, a combination of strategic mistakes, well-positioned Union artillery and the presence of a Union gunboat on the river able to hit the Confederates led to a decisive victory for the Union.

The battle effectively “broke” the Confederacy in Arkansas, Wolfe said. But the important battle is often overlooked, he said, since it took place the day after the famed Battle of Gettysburg and the same day Confederate forces at Vicksburg surrendered that major port to Union Gen. Ulysses Grant.

Helena was the location of the most significant enlistment of African-American soldiers into the Union Army, Wolfe said. In the waning days of the war, it was many of these soldiers manning the guard posts for the city.

These soldiers were involved in events seeking to keep the peace in post-war Arkansas, he said, from the Ku Klux War in southwest Arkansas to the Brooks-Baxter War. Helena also was the location for an office of the Freedman’s Bureau that sought to assist former slaves and poor whites during Reconstruction.

In addition to his ancestor who was at Helena, Wolfe spoke of another relative — great great uncle Jacob Wolf, who had a farm in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania and hid runaway slaves.

“We all possess these ties to the past,” said Wolfe. “The best thing we can do is to find the lasting value for ourselves in those stories and ties.”

Welcoming those in attendance to the event, Billy Thomas, M.D., vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, called the annual Black History Month presentation an opportunity to learn.

“These presentations are meant to take Black History Month beyond celebration and to educate and inform UAMS faculty, staff and students,” Thomas said.

Thomas said his friendship with Wolfe, who also served as the first chairman of the Chancellor’s Diversity Committee, went back to the 1990s, working together at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. He added that he only recently discovered his colleague’s background in history and connections to the Underground Railroad that made him a natural choice for the presentation.