Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Reconstructing President's Island

This photo of the New Hope Baptist Church appeared in the Press-Scimitar, November 2, 1937.(From the files of the Memphis Public Library, Central Branch)
It's actually been more than three years since I posted a picture of New Hope Church on President's Island. I'm re-posting that picture in this update. Needless to say, in the last three years I have not stopped thinking about P.I. but have been actively working on other things including trying to find documents on another contraband camp--Camp Holly Springs. In any case, I do have a few updates on President's Island, more than I can write about in this post, so I will try to find time to write several posts over the next two weeks.

Let me begin with the name of the church in the picture included here. According to the 1937 Press Scimitar article, this is in fact New Hope Church. I am curious about its structure and if it would have survived storms and floods over the years. I wonder this because I have evidence that one of the earliest, probably the first, post Civil War Negro churches on the island was in fact New Hope. This would have made New Hope at least seventy-two years old in the year of the photograph. I know the church was in existence shortly following the war (as an organization if not as a building) from studying Freedmen's Bureau Bank records. According to these records, John Crump (likely a slave of William Crump of Marshall  and Tippah counties.) was pastor of the church in 1870 and probably earlier. This is according to Thomas Downey, who was himself a preacher, who lived on the island.

Crump and Downey both have personal bank account records, and Downey makes an additional application in 1870 for an organization--"Laborer's Treasury." I don't know much about the organization, but many of those who lived on the island were farmers or involved in farm work. I have noticed other organizations with similar titles, so my guess would be that these are early benevolent societies since there certainly were many of these being founded at this time. They provided burial insurance and other benefits.

Many of the newly founded black churches in Memphis also opened accounts with the Freedmen's Bank, so it may seem surprising that New Hope did not have a separate church account. (Actually, I haven't given up on finding one.) It may be that the "Laborer's Treasury" served the purpose of creating a fund for families and individuals, funds that would of course be separate from the church. Yet, possibly many of New Hope's members would have also been a part of the benevolent society. Certainly, Crump and Downey's involvement in both (it was on Downey's application for LT that Crump was identified as pastor of New Hope) suggests an association between the church and the society.

I was delighted to find a bank record for Crump because of a personal connection. My second great-grandfather and his family also were residents of the island, and I learned from his pension file that Crump married him and his second wife--undoubtedly at this very church. Having the photo of it helps me and others to imagine wedding ceremonies, as well as other types of services taking place there.

But beyond the personal, a look at almost a third of Freedmen's Bank records provides a list of others who lived on the island between 1865 and 1870 (and likely longer). They are:

Thomas Downey
David Downey (wife Melinda) (David was in the 64th USCT (Co.D)
Fountain Walker(wife Frances)  (In 1869, he reports living on the island two or three years)
Solomon DeVall (wife Betsey DeVall) (Brother of Fountain. In 1869, reports that he has been living on the island 2 or 3 weeks)
Jo Durham (wife Vina Durham)  (In 1869, reports that he has lived on the island for three years)
Ben Kay Jackson (wife Susan Jackson) (In 1869, reports that he has lived on the island for four years)
Samuel Williams (oldest son of my own ancestor Daniel Williams, with whom he lives)
James Anderson (wife Chaney Anderson) (James was in the 63rd USCT (Co. B).
Isaac J. Walker (wife Ann Walker)
Marrina Williams (husband John Williams)
Aaron Hill (wife Martha Hill)

A number of children belong to these families, and needless to say this list is not exhaustive but simply represents those who opened a bank account with the Bureau between 1865 and 1870. I certainly expect that there will be more to add to the list, those who opened accounts in 1871. My own ancestor for instance did not open his account until 1872, and another son also later opened an account.

I have lots of hunches about this population. Perhaps it is becoming clear here that those who opened an account were leaders of a sort. Most of those listed are working for themselves as farmers, an important distinction from sharecropping and also from the contract labor that was the fate of many in the years following the war. I have no doubt that all of these men and women on the island are renting land, and there is evidence to prove that their choice to remain on the island after the war is directly influenced by the agricultural experiments begun during the war.This is an important point to make because local memory often misrepresents those who lived on the island as being in a refugee camp, and the picture too often offered really is of people who were at the mercy of local land owners. Without a doubt, these African American farmers would have had to negotiate with the owners, but there is reason to believe they were quite capable of doing so. This is an important question for further study, especially since at the end of the war all whites [this was the language used in the order] not connected to the military and its projects were to vacate the island.*

Lastly, it is worth noting that Freedmen's Bank records also reveal many blacks living at Fort Pickering following the war. Many of its residents, some veterans and their families, would have been well acquainted with persons living on President's Island, so I would say that these communities were mutually supporting and mutually interested in the same goals, one being religious instruction and another being achieving independence through farming.

*Special Order No. 10, Paragraph 8: “The exigencies of the service rendering it absolutely indispensable, President’s Island, in the Mississippi river below Memphis, Tennessee, is hereby reserved and set apart for the purposes of the Freedmen’s Department, and is placed under the exclusive control of Col. John Eaton, Jr., General Superintendent of Freedmen, and such officers as he may place in charge of camps, farms, mills or other interests.“All white persons not directly connected with the military service will be required to leave the Island before the first day of January 1865, and after that date no white person will be allowed to land on any part of the same without written permission so to do, either from these Head Quarters, the Head-Quarters District of West Tennessee, the General Superintendent of Freedmen, or the Provost Marshal of Freedmen, and none other.

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