A backhoe gouged a neat T-shaped scar into a grassy lot in downtown Hampton, Va., revealing … dirt. You could see dark patches in the soil—some circular, others square, most bloblike—but it was still just dirt to the layperson. To archaeologist Dave Hazzard, though, these splotches may be man-made “features,” or possible evidence of one of the first self-contained communities of free African Americans in the nation, the Grand Contraband Camp.
Hazzard and his team from the James River Institute of Archaeology didn’t expect to find much. For 150 years since the height of GCC settlement, the site has been built on, dug up and paved over. “The plan isn’t to go into these things right now,” Hazzard had told The Root. “The plan is to map them and see, and let the city know what we’ve got.”
But just a few hours after Hazzard uttered these words, his mind—and those of other archaeologists on-site—was blown. Feature upon feature—eventually more than 100—appeared in the next 14-by-35-foot plot they dug. “We were stunned,” Hazzard said.
So plan A, just mapping, was quickly tossed out the window and plan B adopted: Dig up as much solid evidence of the contraband camp as possible before a $45,000 contract with the city runs out. “There’s no question that it warrants further investigation,” said Matt Laird, senior researcher at JRIA. “What we’ve demonstrated is that there is potential now to identify lots of other areas like that that are probably undisturbed.”
“It’s like reading the ground,” Hazzard later explained as he stood over the small trench. He pointed to a barrel-sized circle. That might have been a well. That square was probably a posthole. A line of these tells you where fence lines were. That gives you an indication of where homes might have been, Hazzard said. That blob? Maybe a trash pit, which can tell you what people ate, among other things. Sure enough, oyster shells, bones and other garbage—archaeological gold—started peeking out as JRIA team members scraped at the patch.
Archaeologists cautioned the armchair historians lurking around the site: If the pattern of features they find conforms with 19th-century maps—and with the only two photos known to exist of the camp—and if the artifacts are judged to be of that era, then they will be able to say with reasonable assurance, though not absolute certainty, that this area was the Grand Contraband Camp.
So why do these 17-plus acres in this sleepy downtown matter in the big historical picture? “Does Jamestown 1607 matter to people here in the United States,” asks Hazzard, rhetorically, referring to the “first permanent English settlement in the New World,” now a shrine to early American history? The GCC is likely the first free black community that stayed free, and which is surrounded by an enduring African-American community.
Hampton—though eclipsed by the three points of the iron triangle of colonial history, Yorktown, Jamestown and Williamsburg—is arguably the birthplace of a truly free America. The first American Revolution, celebrated so abundantly in these heavily touristed cities, secured rights only for white male property owners. But it was here, during the second American Revolution, that three self-emancipated heroes and a savvy general—the former black, the latter white, all American—dragged our nation closer to genuine equality for all.
In May 1861, barely a month into the Civil War (and a day after Virginia seceded), a Massachusetts lawyer-turned-Union Army commander refused to return three African-American fugitive slaves to their white master. Major Gen. Benjamin Butler, commanding officer of Fort Monroe, declared Shepard Mallory, James Townsend and Frank Baker “contraband of war.” His reasoning: “Property likely to be used in aid of the rebellion” could be confiscated. The three enslaved men, property under Virginia law, had been forced to build rebel fortifications by their owner, a Confederate officer.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brian Palmer is a journalist and documentary filmmaker currently teaching at the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications at Hampton University.