How emancipation affected Little Rock

If Arkansas had extended its Civil War Sesquicentennial commemorations through Reconstruction, we would be in 1873 by now. In fact, we would be getting ready for Brooks-Baxter 150. I imagine the Old State House Museum will offer some lectures on the subject next year.

I confess that in my own studies, I have neglected Reconstruction. But I am turning to it now because I want to understand this New South that Arkansans live in, especially in our capital city. I want to understand why a stroll around downtown Little Rock takes us over or under interstate highways, past high-rise housing projects, and through acres of asphalt parking lots. How did this landscape of boredom, emptiness and speed get imposed over the old cityscape of commerce and religion?

Who built the old cityscape of commerce and religion? Who were the people who made up the city that produced William Grant Still and Florence Price and Donald Harington?

Sometimes answers begin in unlikely places. Let's turn our attention to the airport.

Adams Field has a new name now, but I call it what I have always called it, the Little Rock Airport. It was Adams Field in 1994, when the Pulaski County Historical Quarterly published Carl Moneyhon's close-up study of the Little Rock Home Farm, which was, as Moneyhon puts it, "beneath or east of Adams Field."

The Little Rock Freedmen's Home Farm operated under the supervision of the U.S. Army from 1864 to 1865. (The Army administered freedmen's affairs until the establishment of the Freedmen's Bureau after the war ended.) At its peak, some 400 African Americans lived and worked on the Little Rock Home Farm as free men, women, and children. So for many, freedom began there.

Emancipation in Arkansas really began in 1862 when the army of Union Gen. Samuel R. Curtis arrived at Helena. Some 3,600 freed people had gathered there by May 1863. During 1862 and 1863, hundreds or thousands of Black people in lower Arkansas emancipated themselves by running from farms and plantations for Union steamboats and then camps.

Little Rock's fall to the Union in 1863 led to the emancipation of Black people already living there, and brought hundreds more into the city. The Camden Expedition (Gen. Frederick Steele's assault on south-central and southwest Arkansas) in the spring of 1864 displaced or emancipated even more, and thousands of freedmen poured into Little Rock.

According to a federal report that Moneyhon quotes, log-house communities of freedmen grew up "as indifferently as mushrooms." Working "from early dawn till early night," freedmen, according to Moneyhon, "built fortifications, loaded and unloaded boats and trains, worked as teamsters, cooked, and laundered." But the old, young, and infirm had trouble finding work and gathered at the army's contraband camp, where, according to one report, 150 people were in "destitute condition."

In November 1863, Adjutant Gen. Lorenzo Thomas appointed Col. John Eaton Jr. to serve as General Superintendent of Freedmen for the Mississippi Valley, and Eaton appointed Major William G. Sargent to serve as Superintendent for Arkansas.

Sargent arrived at Helena in January 1864 and at Little Rock in March 1864. His extensive report to Eaton of July 1, 1864, is in turns a beautiful and horrifying read.

Moneyhon draws on Sargent's reports (as well as other federal documents) to tell the story of the Little Rock Home Farm. Sargent's main charge in Arkansas was to direct the flow of labor--to help freedmen find contract work on plantations that had been abandoned or confiscated and then leased to men who were loyal to the Union. The idea of the Home Farms was to provide "temporary labor for those who are not otherwise employed," along with some education.

Sargent created the Little Rock Home Farm on May 5, 1864, on 500 to 600 acres that the Treasury Department had seized from William R. Vaughan, who had been a major Pulaski County landowner and slave owner.

By the time of the farm's establishment, the property had been thoroughly trashed, most likely by Union troops. Buildings and fences were down, team animals and farm implements were all gone, the wells were filled, and the cisterns were busted.

Sargent appointed army officers to run the farm and to recruit and train troops from the farm. There was a good deal of indirection and mismanagement under two early appointees, Capt. Samuel N. Yearick and Lt. Alonzo Garrison; during the months of their oversight, laborers began to construct 60 cabins and a hospital, but far too slowly.

Sargent leased the land to a northerner, J.W. Medbury, who got 400 acres into cultivation by July 1864. Medbury paid 1/3 of his profits to the laborers (freedmen on the farm) and 1/3 to the Army for the lease.

In January 1865, the replacement of Yearick and Garrison by Lt. James H. Rains turned things around on the Home Farm. Under his direction, freedmen planted 20 acres of vegetables and finished the hospital, a 30-foot by 60-foot frame building that could hold 30 patients. Rains sought and received animals and fodder in order to sow 40 acres in corn, oats, and cotton.

Rains established a school and brought in Mr. and Mrs. H.M. Barstow, who had 130 students by May 1865.

Best of all, by spring 1865, Rains had leased 400 acres directly to the freedmen. Then the war ended. Responsibility for freedmen was moved from the Army to the newly created Freedmen's Bureau.

And then, in a story that pretty well inaugurates the history of the modern South, the Little Rock Home Farm closed. Lessees were allowed to remain long enough to gather their harvests, then kicked off the land, which was returned to W.R. Vaughan.

Brooke Greenberg lives in Little Rock. Email: