Documenting Historic Cemeteries

Helms Cemetery

Mary Beth Trubitt, Ph.D., Arkansas Archeological Survey (HSU Research Station)

The Arkansas Archeological Survey has worked with community groups and individuals interested in preserving historic cemeteries across Arkansas. In 2010, the Buffaloes’ Foundation, Inc., obtained a grant from the Arkansas Humanities Council to document and preserve the Helms Cemetery in Clark County, Arkansas. The Helms Cemetery is significant as the burial place of several African-American men and women who were once prominent in education and medicine in Arkadelphia. As station archeologist at the Survey’s HSU Research Station, Dr. Trubitt served as a humanities scholar and assisted the Buffaloes’ Foundation with their project. One aspect of the project was mapping and photo-documenting grave markers in the cemetery.

Volunteers assisted in documenting the cemetery

Dr. Trubitt recorded Helms Cemetery as archeological site 3CL873 following a 2009 visit with Mr. Leroy Brownlee and Mr. Art Tippin of the Buffaloes’ Foundation, Inc.
J.E. Peake (born 1851, died 1906) was superintendent at Bethel Institute, now Shorter College in North Little Rock. Peake High School in Arkadelphia, a Rosenwald school built 1928-1929 that is now used by Peake Elementary School, was named after him.
The final map locates all the gravestones and marked graves, as well as possible gravesA starting point for the grave mapping project was a list of individuals buried here based on the published cemetery census. The Clark County Historical Association has published a five-volume set of books on cemeteries in the county that includes documentation of names and inscriptions from gravestones.
Over four field days in September and October, 2010, we mapped grave markers, graves, family plot corners, and possible graves within Helms Cemetery. Each gravestone or possible grave was flagged, shot in with the total station, matched to the CCHA list of individuals named on grave markers, and photographed. The result is that the map, the photographs, and the cemetery census can all be tied together.

Obelisk of J.E. Peake at Helms Cemetery

Dr. Mary Beth Trubitt mapping the Helms Cemetery in 2010.
Dr. Mary Beth Trubitt mapping the Helms Cemetery in 2010.
HSU student Elizabeth Sorensen assisted with the archeological mapping at Helms. George Elder, Lon Ware, Art Tippin, Jarrod Davis, Pam Lucas, Juanita Williams, and John Beavers also volunteered their time on this cemetery documentation project.
The final map locates all the gravestones and marked graves, as well as possible graves based on surface evidence of depressions or sunken areas, low topographic rises or mounded earth, plantings of yucca or irises, or unmarked rocks, concrete blocks, or bricks.
Copies of the final map and CDs with the digital photographs are on file at the Survey’s HSU Research Station in Arkadelphia, as well as with the Buffaloes’ Foundation, Inc. With this mapping and photo-documentation, we now have a record of grave locations, documentation of the condition of grave markers, and have identified possible unmarked grave locations.
There is still work to be done. The Buffaloes’ Foundation, Inc., plans more work at Helms Cemetery to clean and repair some of the grave markers as well as to collect oral histories from community members and descendants.
The Buffaloes’ Foundation, Inc., held a dedication service in 2012 at the West End Presbyterian Church in Arkadelphia to celebrate the placement of four historical markers at locations of schools serving the African-American community in Clark County during the early 20th century. The Buffaloes’ Foundation placed markers at the former locations of Arkadelphia Presbyterian Academy, Arkadelphia Baptist Academy, Sloan School, and Farrie Dawson Taylor Kindergarten. These efforts help to raise awareness of African American history in Clark County.
For more information on preserving historic cemeteries in Arkansas, see the Survey’s “Arkansas Cemetery Preservation” brochure, written by state archeologist Ann M. Early. 
Historical markers were placed at locations of schools serving the African-American community in Clark County during the early 20th century.
Historical markers were placed at locations of schools serving the African-American community in Clark County during the early 20th century.
More work is planned to clean and repair some of the grave markers at Helms Cemetery
More work is planned to clean and repair some of the grave markers at Helms Cemetery.