Thursday, February 24, 2011

What happened to President's Island Contraband Camp?

Aerial View of President's Island today via Google Satellite Image

When my gr. gr. grandmother Amanda Young Barr applied for a Civil War widow's pension, she told many parts of her life to prove that she was the widow of Berry Young her first husband, who left to join the Union Army.  Other witnesses spoke on her behalf, including a sister Mary Paralee, whom she had not seen for 50 years.  It was from this gr. gr. aunt's testimony that I learned how she and others lived in a contraband camp, called President's Island.

At the time of the Civil War, President's island was truly an island sitting in the Mississippi River, just outside of Memphis. With the shifting soil and the passage of over 150 years, it is now a peninsula outside of Memphis and only a few minutes away from downtown.

It is from that gr. gr. aunt's testimony that I learned about the enlistment of black men as soldiers from Tippah County Mississippi. Berry Young, my gr. gr. grandfather, his son John and how she and many other slaves fled for freedom from Ripley, Mississippi.

There would have been a degree of safety for the newly freed slaves on the contraband camp, and hopefully they did not suffer the terror that newly freed slaves in Memphis endured. There was a reign of terror heaped upon the freed slaves, by angry whites who hated to see freedom given to people that they  had been taught were lesser forms of humanity---and now with their new freedom, they were immediately hated by the classes that once considered themselves superior.

Some of these images were captured in 1860s publications.

Source: Harper's Weekly May 26, 1866

It is therefore understandable that many freed slaves were not rushing to live on the mainland, preferring to live for many years on the island. Small schools were formed and a cemetery was once there on the island as well.

I took me a long time to find out information about President's Island.  But I learned that during the era of the Federal Writer's project in the 1930s, a survey and brief history of President's Island was written in the book "Tennessee. A Guide to the State".

Cover of WPA Guide to Tennessee written in 1939.

So apparently according to this article at least 1500 slaves actually lived on the island. In the spring of 1865 the Freedman's Bureau established labor contracts on the island. This suggests to me that there are some records that I might find at the National Archives. So, my next trip to the Archives will involve looking at the Memphis Freedman's Bureau records to see if I can find some people who were still living on the island at that time.  And unfortunately the cemetery that was once there was washed away as the Mississippi changed its course.

While searching for more information on President's Island, I learned that well into the 20th century, there were still inhabitants of President's Island.  A teacher at East High School in Memphis, Mr. Mark Scott has devoted a project form one of his classes in history---to preserve what remains of the old one room schoolhouse from President's Island.  This may be the once artifact that reflects the presence of a community that last almost a century.

Old Schoolhouse on President's Island. School closed in the 1960s.

The teacher at East High School also created a blog about the school and the community that once resided there.  Students in his AP history class conducted an oral history of the are, and he created a small blog about the old school house.  The people interviewed were all born after 1930, so they won't be in any 1920 census, however, I did see the name of one of the teachers, Mrs. Elnora Devers. I found Mrs. Devers in the 1930 census living in Memphis, on Louisiana Street.

1930 Federal Census, Memphis TN

Her occupation was indicated as teacher, County School
1930 Federal Census, Memphis TN

I still have many questions about President's Island and its residents. One of my goals will be to go through records at the National Archives to see if early labor contracts can be found.

The residents who lived as contrabands in the early years of freedom are not forgotten. I am committed to learning more about them.


  1. Angela,
    I am the Mark Scott that you mentioned on your site. The project is ongoing and my current students are researching the Freedmen's Bureau schools in Memphis. The Main Library in Memphis has the microfilm of the FB Records. In Fact I was viewing some of them today. I only looked through (3) rolls - there are many. Within the rolls there are multitudes of records re: the Riot of 1866 and I also found some records from the medical hospital on the island. The American Missionary Association supported the schools with teachers and the school on P. Island was supported in this fashion in the 1860's. It would be great if the students could incorporate your knowledge of education/life on the island to their studies.

    Mark Scott

  2. I am Mark scott - teacher at East High. My class is the one doing the Presidents Island One Room School House Project. Today I found what I believe to be the grave of Mrs. Elnora Devers at Elmwood Cemetery. Her grave is not marked however records at the cemetery state that she died in 1979. That date fits well with one of the interviews on the blog where one of her former students stated that she died after 1970. I really enjoyed your site and hope to add to our blog in April and May this year.

  3. Hello Mr. Scott,

    Thank you so much for your remarks and for visiting the blog!

    I would love to know where the schoolhouse is located now. Has it been removed from President's Island, and is it being restored?

    Also I would love to know more about the records that you are using from Memphis Freedman's Bureau. Are you getting any data from the years that President's Island was a contraband camp?

    Looking forward to hearing more.


  4. Angela and Mark,

    I am so happy to hear that the one-room schoolhouse from P.I. is going to be saved, but I am also interested in the larger story of the island during the Civil War and directly following it being told. I have contacted several Memphis media and gotten no response, which is strange. I cannot imagine a more timely or newsworthy story.

    A regular visitor to Memphis, I have looked at the FB Records there many times and not seen much at all on P.I. These records are not pre-bureau records.

    Otherwise, I've picked up a few references from Ira Berlin's work. An example comes from Leah Black, a freedwoman who filed a complaint with the Southern Claims Commission. A witness for her residency in Memphis during the war wrote that he was acquainted with her during the war, having many times seen her going between President's Island and Camp Shiloh of the Colored People feeding the soldiers and selling her wares (I paraphrase a bit).

    It looks to me like we're going to have to put forth a major effort to get the story of this contraband camp and others told.

  5. Hello,

    I am researching my family history and I have reason to believe my direct ancestor was located on Presidents Island in 1880. Perhaps as part of a Yellow Fever quarantine.

    Specifically I was hoping someone familiar with the are could tell me where "Second Civil District, Shelby County" would be located today?

    I found a 1880 census that shows my ancestor and his wife living in the Second Civil District. They are listed as laborers. On the same census sheet every single person listed for several pages lists their race as black, except my ancestor who lists is as white. Any idea why that would be?

    I understand the Yellow Fever outbreak of 1879 may have used President Island as a quarantine station.

    We have a lot of Cherokee blood in us so it is possible that everyone else considered them black, but they themselves identified as white.
    And of coarse it is also possible that they were black and the census worker got it wrong.

    All this is assuming Presidents Island is the Second Civil District of 1880.

    Appreciate any comments.