Chattanooga History Column: The North Shore's hidden past

Some of the African-Americans who lived in Camp Contraband at Chattanooga's North Shore.

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It is almost impossible to walk through Chattanooga without seeing reminders of our city's past. Monuments, markers, tablets and cannons dot its neighborhoods. Signs mark the original route of the Trail of Tears. Places such as the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, the Hunter Museum of American Art and Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park showcase our rich history.

But in one of the city's most vibrant neighborhoods and popular greenspaces lies a largely forgotten and untold story, buried deep within the heart of Chattanooga's North Shore.

At the time of the Civil War, Chattanooga was a small town. Rail yards and light industry were the economic backbone. There were few of the large plantations that symbolized the antebellum South. Despite the lack of large farms and plantations, slavery had crept into the community.

The city sat along the route of the domestic slave trade extending from the upper South to the Deep South. Enslaved Chattanoogans worked in the local industries - railroads, docks, iron foundries and the city's hotels and taverns.

A few of the wealthiest Chattanoogans enslaved personal servants. However, African-Americans made up only a small part of the local population. By 1860, about 10 to 15 percent of Chattanoogans lived in bondage. That would soon change once the nation was ripped apart by the Civil War.

At the end of November 1863, the Union Army launched a series of attacks at Orchard Knob, Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge and drove the Confederate Army from this area. The Rebels retreated to Dalton, Atlanta and the Carolinas before surrendering at Appomattox in 1865.

With the Confederates gone, the Union Army controlled Chattanooga. Thousands of black people poured into the city under the promise and hope that freedom could be found under the American flag. They settled into a haphazard encampment along the north shore of the Tennessee River that became known as Camp Contraband. (As property, the African-Americans were considered contraband under the Confiscation Act - thus the name contraband camps.)

Camp Contraband was massive. Before the Civil War, only 2,500 people called Chattanooga home. But by the end of 1865, nearly 6,000 free African-Americans lived on the north shore in the new camp.

It was a Spartan life, at best. One visitor described it as a "village of huts on the north side of the river built of rails and mud." The work was hard. One woman living there in 1865 said her "husband was employed whenever he could get a job Sometimes he talks like he'd hire out, then like he'd sooner take land - any way to get into work. All have to support themselves somehow."

Many found work as laborers for the Union Army, while many young men enlisted into the United States Colored Troops. But slowly, a new world was born. A visitor to Camp Contraband noted that "its affairs are administered by a colored president and council chosen from among the citizens [who] were generally persons of dignity and shrewd sense."

Here on the banks of the north shore, people, who only a few years earlier were legal property, forged a new society and transformed the city of Chattanooga.

Over the years, Camp Contraband evolved into the community of Hill City. During Reconstruction, its residents, now United States citizens, found stable employment and enjoyed relatively widespread civic participation. By 1880, African-Americans made up 40 percent of the voting population of Chattanooga. But over time, those rights withered in the face of growing white supremacy and the hardening of Jim Crow laws throughout the nation. The old Camp Contraband faded away into another segregated neighborhood of the 20th century landscape.

But even that eventually changed. As Chattanooga grew at the dawn of the 21st century, revitalization efforts and gentrification transformed the site of Camp Contraband into a dizzying array of shops, restaurants and parks that help form the foundation of the city's identity.

Shoppers on the North Shore today walk down aisles where 150 years ago new citizens stood on the precipice of hope, looking across the river and imagining a future for themselves and their descendants.

Today all that physically remains of Camp Contraband is the reconstructed foundation of a Civil War era blockhouse in Renaissance Park, marked by a small wayside exhibit. But some of the first residents of Camp Contraband are still here in our city.

In Chattanooga National Cemetery lie members of the United States Colored Troops - men who came to Chattanooga and Camp Contraband in search of freedom, but ultimately sacrificed their lives to that cause.

Chris Barr is a park ranger at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. For more, visit Chattahistorical