Zada Law is an archaeologist and professor at Middle Tennessee State University, where the GIS mapping project, Landscape of Liberation, came together.
The initial goal of the project was to map the refugee experience of African Americans during the Civil War. That means all data collected had to be between 1861 and 1865. She led a group of students through the discovery of what was happening to African American people during the Civil War.
“As federal troops occupied Middle and parts of West Tenneessee very early in the war, African Americans fled by the thousands to the protected league of union lines,” Law said.
The extent of the occupation of federal forces in Tennessee makes the state a good representation of what was happening to slaves during the Civil War. The occupation disrupted the manual labor that was being performed by slaves, and gave them an opportunity to escape to the safety of the union lines. These self-emancipated individuals came to be known as contraband, since the Emancipation Proclamation had not yet been announced.
“In fact, as we know, in 1863 Tennessee was an occupied state and the Emancipation Proclamation only applied to Confederate states. So the story we have in Tennessee is about a very fragile period, four years of when people were not emancipated. They were self-emancipating. They weren’t necessarily determined free, but they were claiming freedom,” Law said.
The federal army established camps for the African American refugees, which came to be known as contraband camps. The first in Tennessee was Grand Junction, established in 1862 in the western part of the state by order of Gen. John Grant.
“By the spring of 1863, over 1,700 men, women and children were living in the Grand Junction camp,” Law said.
At the end of the war, the camps were established in all of Tennessee’s larger cities and many smaller towns as well. Men from the camps were recruited to fight in the war, and they were places with much sickness and hardship.
The Landscape of Liberation map went further than contraband camps. It ended up as a collection of unique sites showing the transition from slavery to freedom in Tennessee, including schools, places of employment, gatherings, dances, marriages and anything connected to the African American experience during the years of 1861-1865.
The foundation of Law’s map began with her work on the Civil War GIS project, which was a map to show the military engagements in Tennessee, following information gleaned from the compendium of Frederick Henry Dyer.
Throughout the project, Law and her students looked for more than the camps By the end of the project Law and her students had found 184 locations for African American refugee camps in Tennessee, a large number considering Law had expected to find maybe 30 or 40.
The research consisted of searching online sources, old newspapers, going through official records and a visit to the National Archives in Atlanta, Ga. They searched for connections to places from people and occurrences, since in large part the history of African American people during this time was silent and nearly invisible.
“These silences skew our perception of events. So I hope this helps to see through a different lens and think about the Civil War and what happened during that period with a different perspective,” Law said.
A large concentration of the refugee camps was found in Nashville. Although there wasn’t much to find in Wilson County, Law said that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to find here.
To view the map visit tnmap.gov/CivilWar/freedmen.
The event was sponsored by the Black History Committee of Wilson County as part of their celebration of Black History.
The next event will be Thursday. Shannon Hodge, a bio-archaeologist from MTSU, will give a slide-accompanied talk about her research on the skeletal remains of enslaved African Americans who were recently discovered and excavated at the Nashville Zoo – formerly Grassmere Plantation. Hodge’s talk will take place Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Mt. Juliet Public Library at 2765 N. Mt. Juliet Road in Mt. Juliet in the lower level meeting room with parking in the back.