Arkansas attorney general allocates $250,000 to Sultana Museum project

Sultana disaster focus of project

The Sultana Disaster Museum has just 1,000 square feet of exhibit space. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Marcia Schnedler)

The office of Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge announced Wednesday that it will give more than $200,000 to a museum project in Marion.

The announcement comes almost two weeks after the Arkansas Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit that challenged Rutledge's spending of taxpayer money.

Rutledge, one of eight candidates running for lieutenant governor, said the office will allocate $250,000 to the Sultana Historical Preservation Society to help create the Sultana Disaster Museum. The new multimillion dollar center will honor the nearly 1,200 men, women and children who died in the largest maritime disaster in U.S. history.

A news release from the Marion Chamber of Commerce announcing Wednesday's luncheon said the attorney general's allocation was among a number of pledges that would be announced during the event. According to the release, a representative for Sen. John Boozman was scheduled announce a $1 million federal Economic Development Administration grant for the project, while Hartford Steam Boiler CEO Greg Barats would pledge $1 million and FedEx Corp. would announce a $1 million Challenge grant.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson also pledged $750,000 to the museum last year.

Officials have said they expect the museum to attract 50,000 visitors annually and anticipate it will inject approximately $3.5 million into Crittenden County and the Delta.

The Sultana was traveling up the Mississippi River in 1865 when both boilers that were powering the steam engine exploded, causing the ship to sink. The Sultana was designed to carry fewer than 400 passengers, but the army overloaded the ship with more than 2,200 passengers, which led to the disaster.

"What happened during the Sultana disaster is heartbreaking, and we must all remember those who tragically lost their lives that day," Rutledge said Wednesday in a news release announcing the allocation. "I pray the new museum will honor the victims and teach our young people about the horrific event that happened on the Mississippi River in 1865."

Rutledge has made several allocations from the consumer education and enforcement fund for various causes, including educational facilities, according to Amanda Priest, spokeswoman for the attorney general's office.

On April 14, the Arkansas Supreme Court dismissed claims brought against Rutledge in a lawsuit that challenged her spending of taxpayer money on TV commercials and legal filings in out-of-state federal litigation.

The court's opinion concluded that the attorney general has sovereign immunity and cannot be enjoined because plaintiffs failed to show Rutledge's acts were beyond her legal power. The court also said Rutledge, as an individual, is entitled to statutory immunity because plaintiffs failed to show she acted maliciously.

Both claims for injunctive relief were reversed and dismissed by the court.

The Sultana Disaster Museum is among a number of efforts being made in the state to remember the sometimes tragic history in the area.

In 2019, the Elaine Massacre Memorial was dedicated in Helena-West Helena to remember the violent massacre that occurred in 1919 in Elaine when armed white mobs killed 200 or more Black people.

One of the oldest commercial buildings in Elaine also will be turned into the Elaine Museum and Richard Wright Civil Rights Center.