“Contrabands” Camps and Lives DC Historical Studies Conference

Camps and Lives
D.C. Historical Studies Conference
November 14-17, 2013
Alcione M. Amos
Anacostia Community Museum
Smithsonian Institution
The Term “Contraband”
The upheaval of the Civil War produced an increasing
number of slaves who run away from their owners into
the Union lines looking for protection. The term
“contraband” originated from the decision by Major
General Benjamin Butler not to return three fugitive
slaves who had came into the Union lines at Fort
Monroe, Virginia at Hampton Roads on the night of May
23, 1861. Butler decided to hold them as war loot.
Although Butler did not name them as “contrabands” at
the time, the term came into current usage later that
“Contrabands” in Washington
In Washington “contrabands” started arriving from
Maryland and Virginia in 1861. At first there were
small numbers, but by 1862 the influx had become
a flood and by 1864 an estimated 50,000 AfricanAmerican refugees had moved within the area
protected by the ring of forts that surrounded the
capital city. They were also the vanguard of the
large African-American community that would
settle in Washington, D.C. and would comprise the
majority of the city’s residents by the late 1950s.
Unidentified Civil
To House and Control “Contrabands”
The government tried to organize the influx of
“contrabands” into Washington by housing
them in locations where supposedly they could
receive assistance and at the same time be
controlled. Between 1861 and 1865 AfricanAmerican refugees were housed in different
locations in and around Washington. Most of
this effort was not successful and subjected the
refugee population to much suffering.
Washington’s Black Hole, Capitol
Washington’s marshal
jailed fugitive slaves in
December 1861
the “Old Capitol
Prison,” under less than
circumstances. Frank
Leslie’s Illustrated
Newspaper, called it
“The Black Hole of
Washington, D.C.”
Today the Supreme
Court stands in its
Duff Green’s Row,
Capitol Hill
May 1862
As more and more
refugees arrived they
were moved to Duff
Green’s Row, a row of
townhouses on the east
side of the 100 block of
1st Street on Capitol Hill. The “contrabands” housed there were
sick with measles, diphtheria, and typhoid fever and living in
squalor. Finally, the dreaded smallpox broke out among the
refugees and it was feared that the outbreak would spread
throughout the city. Today one of the Library of Congress
buildings stands at this location.
Camp Barker “Contraband” Camp, 1863
With the outbreak of smallpox at
Duff Green’s Row it was decided
that the refugees should be moved
to a site to the North, beyond the
limits of the city, near 13th Street
between R and S Streets. The only
freshwater available came from a
well which was contaminated and
remained rampant among the
residents and mortality was
extremely high. Between June
1862 and April 1864 about one in
seven people who came into the
camp died. The location of the
camp is today in the affluent
neighborhood of Logan Circle.
Mason’s Island Contraband
Camp, 1864
In 1863 Mason’s
Island was used as a
training camp for
Washington and then
as a “contraband”
camp in 1864. The
“contraband” camp
was disbanded in July
of 1865. Today there
are no remnants of
the camp in what is
Roosevelt Island.
In 1863 the U.S. Army established
Freedmen's Village on General
Robert E. Lee's former Arlington
estate. Envisioned as a temporary
settlement to provide housing
and work to assimilate former
slaves into post-slavery society, it
became a permanent home for
hundreds of African-Americans.
By 1870 the Army took control of
the camp and in 1887 ordered
the residents to vacate within 90
days. They fought to remain but
eventually lost the fight and in
March of 1900 all had to leave.
Freedmen’s Village Early
Residents in the 1860s
“Contraband” Lives
Although the “contrabands” were listed as statistics in
the military records and later, when they were
“freedmen,” in the records of the Freedmen's Bureau,
each one of them was a human being. They were
individuals with aspirations for a successful life coming
out of slavery. They wanted a safe place to live, to find
work to support their families, schools for their
children, a church where they could worship, and finally,
a hallowed ground for their burial when the time came
to meet their Lord. Here we share the life histories of
two of these individuals who fled slavery and moved to
Washington as “contrabands” and built their postslavery lives here.
Keith Sutherland
Son of Rachel and Sandy
Sutherland. He came to
Washington as a child in
1864 from Maryland. Rachel
and Sandy worked as
hospital orderlies and Keith
was a bootblack near the
downtown Washington and
proudly reported years later
that he had seen the funeral
Freedmen’s Bank Card for the Sutherland
Family, 1871
Hell’s Bottom
After the Civil War the Sutherland family lived and run a business in
the area which became known as Hell’s Bottom
Keith Sutherland and his Fairview Hotel
An early version of a Washington D.C. Food
Maria Toliver
Williamsburg Va., and was
sold into King William
County, Va., and run off
from my master about
1862 and I came here to
Washington D.C.” With this
straightforward statement,
made some 35 years after
the events, Maria Toliver
told the tale of how she
became a “contraband.”
Contrabands at Cumberland
Landing, King William County, VA,
ca. 1862
From Patient to Nurse
African American Nurse and
Hospital Workers,
Washington, D.C., 1865
Maria Toliver was one of the many
residents of Camp Barker who fell
sick with smallpox and was
confined to the hospital. She must
have demonstrated special skills
because soon she was hired by the
Surgeon in charge of the hospital,
Contraband Hospital, as head
nurse for the women. Her future
husband Henry Bear, also a patient
at the hospital, was hired as head
nurse for the men. After the war
they both went to work for the
Freedmen’s Hospital and which is
today the Howard University
Coming Up! Exhibition at the
Anacostia Community Museum
How the Civil War Changed Washington
October 27, 2014 – September 21, 2015
Covering the years during and after the Civil War,
this exhibition examines the changing physical
layout and the dynamic population growth in
wartime Washington, D.C. Looking at changes in
the social mores, in the built environment, in the
population and its ethnic composition, it focuses
particularly on the experiences of selected
individuals who made Washington their home
during the war years.
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