County Seat Spotlight: Helena-West Helena

Helena in Phillips County was incorporated in 1833 and prospered as a river port, while West Helena began as a railroad town, incorporated in 1917. The two cities united their school systems in 1946 and merged into one city (preserving both names) on January 1, 2006.

Two land speculators, Sylvanus Phillips and William Russell, created the present town site of Helena, originally part of a Spanish land grant. Phillips, who played the major role in the establishment of the town, arrived in the area about 1797 and moved to the present site of Helena around 1815. On May 1, 1820, the territorial legislature carved out part of Arkansas County and created a new county named in honor of Sylvanus Phillips. The legislature also gave permission to create a town, and the 640-acre site that was to become Helena was platted in December of the same year.

In 1833, some two years after Phillips’s death, the town of Helena was incorporated and named after his daughter, Helena Phillips, who had died on August 28, 1831, at the age of 15. Helena, like many river towns, became known as a place that attracted thieves, gamblers, and other outlaws who inhabited frontier America. In 1835, citizens in Helena responded to the growing lawlessness by forming an anti-gambling society to rid the town of some of its worst elements. By the mid-1850s, much of the rough edges of the river town had disappeared. By then, Helena had three newspapers, six private schools, at least a dozen churches, a temperance society, several subscription libraries, and an occasional public lecture. By the beginning of the Civil War, Helena was the largest Arkansas town on the Mississippi River. During the war, hundreds of men from the surrounding area joined the Confederate army, and the region eventually produced seven Confederate generals. However, the support for the Confederacy among whites was never unanimous. After the Emancipation Proclamation, hundreds of freedmen joined the Union army. The Battle of Helena took place on July 4, 1863, but the town itself escaped the massive physical destruction that many other Arkansas towns saw.

With black enfranchisement during early Reconstruction, Helena elected a number of African Americans to public offices, but that trend began to decline in the late 1870s when Southern whites returned to political power. Among the leaders of Helena in the last years of the 19th century were Joseph Cantrill Barlow, a Civil War veteran who began as a store clerk, acquired a hardware business, and was elected mayor of Helena in 1878; John Sidney Horner, a law clerk, judge, and merchant who lost a fortune during the Civil War but rebuilt his business after the war and was the first president of the Bank of Helena; and William M. Neil, the editor and owner of the Helena World. Elias Camp Morris served as pastor of Centennial Baptist Church, an African-American congregation in Helena now recognized as a National Historic Landmark. He became the leader of several African-American Baptist organizations, including the National Baptist Convention. Morris was also active in the Republican Party in Arkansas.

As the home of the longest running radio show ever, Helena has become a Delta legend. On November 21, 1941, KFFA in Helena began broadcasting King Biscuit Time. Sonny Boy Williamson and other musicians played live every weekday, pausing for King Biscuit Flour commercials and announcements of their next nighttime performances. Featuring local blues performers, this radio program helped to revolutionize music in the United States, which went on to have a worldwide impact. King Biscuit Time helped establish the careers of many artists who went on to record in Chicago, Memphis and other music centers. Helena natives Robert Lockwood Jr., Robert Lee McCollum, Roosevelt Sykes, and Sonny Boy Williamson are among those whose legendary careers were made possible by the King Biscuit Time radio program. The Delta Cultural Center began presenting Helena radio station KFFA’s King Biscuit Time from the Depot in downtown Helena in 1992. When the DCC Visitors Center opened in 2000, King Biscuit Time began broadcasting from a custom studio established in the new Delta Sounds Gallery each weekday. Tune in to KFFA 1360 every day at 12:15 p.m. and listen to legendary host “Sunshine” Sonny Payne.

Pinetop Perkins, a King Biscuit regular, said in the Daily World that 1940s Helena “aint’ nothin like it is now. I used to play all night long at a club called the Hole in the Wall. We got paid $3 a night plus all the whiskey we could drink. We’d play all night and then go home and sleep until it was time to play again. Those were the days.” The annual King Biscuit Blues Festival held in Helena is considered the nation’s foremost blues festival and helps bring the town back to life every October.

In addition to many noted blues performers, Helena-West Helena is also the hometown of country singer Conway Twitty, baseball stars Alex Johnson and Ellis Valentine, Arkansas senator Blanche Lincoln, and John Stroger Jr., the first African-American president of the powerful Board of Commissioners of Cook County, Illinois.

There were 640 people counted in Helena for the 1850 census and 12,282 people in 2010.

There’s much more to the story of Helena-West Helena. Read the Encyclopedia of Arkansas entry for more and when you visit the legendary Helena-West Helena area, stop by the Delta Cultural Center—a museum and educational complex that tells the story of the Delta and its people, capturing what makes the Arkansas Delta region unique. It is the mission of the Delta Cultural Center to preserve, interpret and present the cultural heritage of this legendary 27-county area.