Unearthing a Historic Free African-American Community

In Hampton, Va., free blacks settled to escape the Confederacy, and now archaeologists believe they are finding pieces of their history.

Grand Contraband Camp, or Slabtown, Hampton, Va., December 1864
Grand Contraband Camp, or Slabtown, Hampton, Va., December 1864 Library of Congress

Mallory, Townsend and Baker were the trickle that started the flood. First hundreds, then thousands of enslaved people fled toward Fort Monroe, which they rechristened “Freedom’s Fortress.” They formed encampments at this Union stronghold in the heart of the Confederacy. Other settlements closer to Hampton proper, like the GCC, formed and grew exponentially. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but historians estimate that by the end of the war, around 10,000 fugitive slaves had settled at the GCC, just one of the camps that emerged in Virginia. These self-emancipated men and women, most of whom fled bondage with empty hands, cobbled together shelter from stuff they scavenged from the abandoned homes of rich Hamptonians. A sawmill set up by the Army provided some lumber.

This was not just a Virginia thing. Across the South, roughly half a million enslaved people escaped to Union lines and settled in temporary camps—Corinth, Miss.; Roanoke Island, N.C.; Memphis, Tenn.; and close to 100 others.

Many of the nearly 200,000 black men who served in the Union Army and Navy were recruited from the camps. Tens of thousands of civilian women and men labored hard for the Union as farmers, cooks, spies, drivers, ditchdiggers—often under terrible living conditions and for “liberators” who despised them as much as their Confederate masters. Wrote the postmaster general of the United States to Gen. Butler: “I suppose by this time you will hardly think my opinion necessary to convince you that you were right when you declared secession n–gers contraband of war.”

After the war, the freed men and women at Hampton’s GCC built sturdier homes. There were schools and stores. The community they built endured into the late 1960s, when the city cleared residents from the land and sold it to a developer. And what did he build? A low-income housing project. Hampton bought the property again in 2012 for $14.5 million and razed the units, the Harbor Square Apartments.

Hampton’s city fathers and mothers seemed to be in an awful hurry to recoup their investment. The City Council came up with $29 million for a new district courthouse and broke ground, without an archaeological investigation, at what might be at the far end of the camp. (Hampton has undertaken archaeological studies before several other major construction projects, but it has also swiftly plopped huge concrete complexes on top of them afterward—as have many cities across the country.)

The question now before the City Council is a simple one: Is it worth more money to dig for further evidence of this vital, formative and underappreciated moment in American history? Readers, feel free to weigh in by emailing council@hampton.gov.

Brian Palmer is a journalist and documentary filmmaker currently teaching at the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications at Hampton University.