From Allison Acosta. Email her at allison[AT]borderstan.com.
Many neighborhood residents know about U Street’s historic past as a vibrant community of African-Americans during the first half of the 20th Century. Commonly referred to as “Black Broadway,” the U Street neighborhood was a hub for African-American entertainment venues, businesses, civil organizations and homes.
But why did U Street become such a center for African-American life in the early 20th Century? According to Dawn Chitty, education director at the African American Civil War Museum, part of the answer may lie beneath the field of Garrison Elementary school on S Street NW.
At the beginning of the Civil War, this area of DC was essentially rural. When the federal government bought property along Vermont Avenue NW near Logan Circle, the site was home to only a small church and a few graves.
Camp Barker Comes to a Rural Area
On this land, the federal government built Camp Barker as a barracks for Civil War soldiers. But as the war progressed, the government determined there was a more pressing need for Camp Barker.
The Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862 authorized the confiscation of any Confederate property, including slaves, by Union forces. As seized property, the formerly enslaved were considered contraband, and these people needed somewhere to go.
In the late spring of 1862, Camp Barker became one of a few hundred “Contraband Camps” that were built to house formerly enslaved persons. At its height, Camp Barker housed roughly 4,000 people and was one of the largest Contraband Camps in the area.
Growth Through the Civil War
The camp had at least one large building, a hospital area, and, of course, housing. Many people living in the camp found work in the city as domestics and laborers. When the Union began forming regiments of “Colored Troops” in 1863, they recruited from the Contraband Camps.
President Lincoln often passed by Camp Barker on his way to the Soldier’s Home, and in the fall of 1862 he visited the camp. This photograph of children singing during the visit is the only known photograph of the site.
“The significance of the camp is in what becomes of the inhabitants afterwards,” says Chitty. “Many of the inhabitants bought property and built homes, and many of them built homes around the Camp Barker Site. This became U Street.”
Camp Barker did not have sufficient clean water and adequate sewage, and an outbreak of cholera forced the government to shut it down in late 1863. When the camp closed, many of the inhabitants relocated to another contraband camp on the site of what is now Arlington Cemetery, but others bought property and stayed nearby.
“There was one woman in particular who wrote to her family to say she was not coming back to Virginia,” says Chitty. “She said she was going to stay here because her son had built a good home for them on Boundary Street, which is what they called what is now Florida Avenue and U Street.”
Archaeological Dig at Garrison School
In July 2012, The African American Civil War Museum conducted an archaeological survey of the field behind Garrison Elementary school. The survey is part of a larger project meant to take the study of these Contraband Camps to the next level, to understand how many of them became communities and what became of the people living there.
The Museum brought in an archaeologist to perform magnetometry, which detects metal underground, and ground-penetrating radar. The results of the survey show the different time periods when the site was most active. Most recently, in the 1930s to 1950s, you can see the imprint of where 12th Street NW used to run all the way through what is now the Garrison Field, the remains of the old Garrison school building which faced 12th Street and imprints of where houses used to be located.
The survey also found several areas, marked in blue on the map shown here, where objects from Camp Barker would likely be found.
If you dug in these areas, you would likely find objects that people lost or threw away. You would find the privies, which can give a good sense of diseases and food ways. You might find more permanent structures built on the site, although it is unclear from the maps of the time exactly where Camp Barker’s main building stood.
There are no plans at present to do any digging on the site, but it is a possibility for the future. For now, the goal is to chart these sites and encourage others to work collaboratively to learn more about them. Many people can trace back their family histories to these Contraband Camps, and they played an important role not only in the Civil War, but also in what happened in the communities after the War.
Says Chitty, “I knew that Camp Barker was there, but over the course of the project I see more how the history of the site is important not just to Garrison Elementary, but to the community as well.”