Monday, March 9, 2009

Cultural Geography

Though President's Island* has always suffered flooding, it is said to exist on high ground. Though people assume that the island is named after Andrew Jackson, who appears to have once owned land there, the name predates this history. The truth is that the island, earlier called President Island, was so called because of its size. Known also as Island No. 45, it is one of the largest, if not the largest, on the Mississippi River. Its size is approximately 9,000 acres. The island, possibly also referred to as "Great Island," is located three miles from Downtown Memphis (and one mile below Fort Pickering) and can be reached via the Jack Carley Causeway.
During the War
Probably the most exact description of the camp was offered by General David Tillson, at one point head of the Freedman's Bureau at Memphis. Tillson, evaluating the camps in the city, reported that the camp was generally well run but that the streets were poorly laid out.

While most camps have been perceived as wretched, it is clear that refugees at President's Island were not without housing. Someone has referred to the "huts" of President's Island while Coffin noted that housing consisted of tents. Even when Coffin visited in 1863, it would appear that structure-wise and spiritually a community already had been created, for Coffin talks about attending church services on the island.

After the War
Far too little writing on the subject of President's Island has been done locally. From time to time, perhaps every ten years or so, a story will appear in the Commercial Appeal on the history of the island. In most cases, however, such stories suggest that the slave colony was created by the Freedmen's Bureau after the war. While the Freedmen's Bureau did not in fact come into existence until March of 1865, the contraband camp on the island "officially" opened in early 1863. This once-well known fact has been for maybe political reasons mostly lost to history. The correct dating of black residence on the island is important to the process of recovering the physical character of this community. If black residence on the island is perceived, for instance, as short-lived or temporary, this perception provides little ground for arguing that the site should receive preservation attention. Records reveal that blacks in fact lived on the island for as many as one hundred years, from Memphis' frontier era through the middle of the 20th century.
According to Rob Roberson, a long-time black resident interviewed in the '30s, there was once a store, and there was also a graveyard, located at the end of the island. A picture of the church was published with the Roberson interview. Another spokesperson, a white landowner by the name of Joe Sailors, considered to be president of the island, said that on his land, "high and dry in the middle of the plantation [was] a big stretch of sand, the former 'baptising' place for the island."** Between this sacred space and the graveyard, there are ghosts on President's Island waiting for acknowledgment.
*Referred to as President's Island by river voyagers as early as 1811. See Commercial Appeal, 1/19/1947.
**Press Scimitar, 11/2/1937.