Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Women's Work on President's Island

,Freedwoman Leah Black arrived at President's Island after spending time at LaGrange, Tennessee 
Imagining what life was like on President's Island during the war must include a picture of what women were doing there. One way to frame the picture is to consider the thesis of Noralee Frankel, who writes in Freedom's Women that the general view of black women by army officials was that they, like men, should be put to work, and "work," in their perception was employment by whites. According to Frankel and others, most women would be encouraged to move from the camps to abandoned plantations, where they would function as field laborers. One might conclude that women who remained in camp were either unable to work or found other ways to win a place there. 

The story I love to tell is of Leah Black, a.k.a. Leah Martin, who, after losing her husband at the start of the war, lost also two of her four children. She spent time in different occupied towns, first, Bolivar, Tennessee (in the county that neighbored her "home" county of Fayette); next, in LaGrange, which was in fact in Fayette County (just a few miles from where she likely had lived before the war); then to President's Island and Memphis. One may be amazed at Black's movement, but she was likely being transported by the army via train, and given her later activities, there is reason to believe that she would have taken advantage of the best opportunities offered her. At LaGrange, she worked "on a Government farm for pay." But, once in Memphis, she may have decided to try to become more independent.  According to Fountain Day, who testified on her behalf before the Southern Claims Commission, she moved quite a bit around Memphis. He stated, “I saw her often inside the Federal lines—she was in Camp ‘Shiloh’ of the colored people, & also on President’s Island, while I was in service.” Day adds that Black always talked to the soldiers and cooked food for them.

This freedwoman obviously defined her freedom to include an ability to work and fend for herself. She appears in The Register of Freedmen as Leah Martin, but following the war she either took her dead husband's last name or remarried. Her case gives us some idea of the latitude black women in camp had despite the fact that they were registered as laborers and were probably encouraged to work for others. 

There is no doubt that many black women did work within the camps. The University of Memphis holds several copies of payrolls that include women. (See above picture.) One from August of 1864 (for workers at President's Island) includes Margaret Crawford, Cornelia Davis, Laura Davis, Manerva Davis, Zerena Green, Lucinda Hardaway, Mariah Harris, Jane Harvel, Lucinda Harvel, Martha Holland, Roseanna Johnson, Emily Logan, Ellen Louis, Ann McGee, Cathena McGee, Sharlott McGowen, Rachel Miles, Ann Miller, Alena Mitchel, Emma Moore, Milly Smith, Susan Paine, Fanny Thomas, Clarisa Thompson, Eliza Treadwell, Martha Wilkinson, Sally Wilkinson, and Ann Williams. These women would have worked cording wood, as seamstresses, cooks, and hospital help.  This runs somewhat contrary to Frankel's statement that as a way to coerce them to move onto plantations women did not receive pay .

Pay Roll of Laborers Employed on President's Island During the Month of August 1864
There also were a number of white women on the island, who also served as hospital workers and as teachers.In January of 1865, one official reported to Capt. Thomas Walker: "On President's Island there are (3) three schools taught by (4) teachers with (353) pupils. A night school for soldiers is just opening...In the Colored Orphan Asylum in charge of Mrs. Canfield (50) pupils have been regularly in school under the instruction of Miss Mary Cahill [spelling unclear]." In the fall of the prior year, the Office of Industrial Colored Schools reported: "The removal of the Freedmen [sic] from Camp Holly Springs to President's Island the past month has prevented Miss Eliza Mitchell from operating in her school." Gen. John Eaton himself, Superintendent of the Department of Tennessee including Arkansas, wrote in Grant, Lincoln, and the Freedmen, that Eliza Mitchell was in fact appointed to this position by him in 1863. He added that she found many homeless and orphaned children. She got them under the care of “Aunt Maria” who took charge of the children for about two years.According to Eaton, Canfield's asylum was in the city, and she had 100 orphans there.

Needless to say, this important work, whether that of teaching or that of cording wood, was necessary to the process of reconstruction that began, not following, but during the war.

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