Emancipation on Memphis’ President’s Island

Perhaps the number one tool of genealogists is the Decennial Census, an official counting of the nation’s population every ten years. However, perhaps fewer family history researchers consult the U.S. Non-Population Schedule, a Select Census.

I came across the Non-Population Schedule years ago while investigating former white, antebellum planters and farmers in DeSoto County, Mississippi, where my father’s family lived in the late nineteenth century into the twentieth. Because our family is African American and because I did not at the time know the extent of our ancestor’s early farming, I was surprised to find them included in the 1880 Agricultural Census, a Special Census that reports the value of one’s farm, livestock, and produce. I was even more surprised to find that our family had rented land on President’s Island (off Memphis) in 1870 and that they continued to do so ten years later, in 1880. (See Image 1 and Image 2 below.)

Image 1–1870 U.S. Selected Federal Census Non-Population; accessed at Ancestry.com

These two documents are together a gold mine when it comes to being able to create a narrative of emancipation for a group of persons who experienced the transition in Memphis, Tennessee. While in theory any black person who was farming five years after the war might have had his or her name recorded as a farmer, my ancestor–Daniel (Walker) Williams–and his family were among dozens of other families who made President’s Island their home from 1865 or earlier to as late as the 1950s. They did not exist in 1870 as scattered across the landscape but, rather, as an intentional community, a village of soldiers and their families. No one, to my knowledge, has told their stories.

In 1870, five years after the close of the U.S. Civil War, Daniel Williams lived near Benjamin Jackson, Alfred LaMaster, Caleb Conelly, Jefferson Cole, Thomas Malone, Cyrus Grant, Charles Dockery, and Scipio Coleman among others. Each of these men and their families, was, to use the words of one important military figure, carrying on a farm. Still early in their experience of freedom, these former United States Colored Troops farmed individually but a small amount of land. The largest parcels among this group of military veterans were farmed by John Crump and Mack Edmonson, each having fifteen acres. Williams farmed in 1870 ten acres and owned a horse. For all of the men, a plot of land and an animal to plow were a beginning of economic freedom.

Image 2–1880 U.S. Selected Federal Census Non-Population; accessed at Ancestry.com

By 1880, some of the men had left the island for Crittenden County, Arkansas, on the opposite side of the Mississippi River from Memphis and from the island, or they had moved down into Mississippi counties bordering Tennessee. Though the island had been made in 1863 a home for blacks by John Eaton, Jr.’s Freedmen’s Department, precursor to the Freedmen’s Bureau, some freedpeople may have felt their chances at success in farming or in other endeavors were better elsewhere. Fifteen years following the war, The Republican’s Reconstruction objectives had already been sacrificed to politics. The opportunities set up by Superintendent Eaton for African Americans to get a start in farming were in jeopardy.

Williams, however, along with a new wife (Ellen Woods) and four children, would remain on the island, and, when the next Agricultural Census would be taken, the family would be recorded as farming eighty acres, a 700% increase achieved within ten years. In addition, the value of the farm had doubled; they now owned more than a thousand dollars in livestock and farming implements. Williams reported having spent eighty dollars on fencing, 400 dollars in labor costs, and the farm was producing not only cotton but barley and even cheese. The Williamses owned two horses, three mules, a milking cow and had purchased one other cattle in 1879.

Indeed, 1880 was the height of Daniel Williams’s farm on President’s Island, but he would not remain in the village much longer. His three oldest sons had already moved into DeSoto County, where they were soon to have their own farm. Samuel Williams, the oldest son of Daniel and his first wife Nancy, is recorded as a DeSoto County farmer in that year’s Non-Population Census. Mirroring his father’s start, Samuel’s produce was valued at 500 dollars, his farm was composed of eighty tilled acres with forty acres of woodland. He and his brothers owned fifty dollars in farming implements, 200 dollars in livestock, and paid twenty dollars in wages.

While it would appear that the sons’ farm was but a fragment of the family’s overall activity, it is more likely the case that Grandfather’s Daniel’s island farm fed into theirs. Certainly, Grandfather’s knowledge of farming was their training. By 1882, the year when sons Samuel, Robert, and Walker stopped renting land and purchased the family’s first property–350 acres–Williams was on his way to retiring from active farming. He had passed on the baton to Samuel, Robert, and Walker, and to his youngest son with Grandmother Nancy, John Bunk.

For many years to come, in DeSoto County, this black family would employ fellow freedmen and women on their land, an estate increased by 1888 to nearly 1,400 acres. When one considers the family’s farming activity advancing to such a scale, one begins to realize that the Williamses–though certainly not alone in their success at farming–provided an economic foundation for what has been termed a long emancipation both for themselves and for hundreds of other black families.

Many years ago now, I started with the most basic knowledge that the Williams family had not, at least in DeSoto County, been renters or sharecroppers but, rather, landowners for most of their time there–more than sixty-five years. Curiosity about the family’s past, how they had moved relatively quickly into landownership, is what took me back to Memphis, to a radical agricultural program that, still do this day, is not recognized as having succeeded. While histories have been written of the Davis Bend (Mississippi) Experiment and the Port Royal (South Carolina) Experiment, there has been no book length treatment as yet on the President’s Island Experiment, which Eaton himself discusses in his General Report of 1864.

It is time that stories of black ingenuity be told as a counter-balance to prevailing knowledge and prevailing voices. In Sick from Freedom, historian Jim Downs’s research does an incredible job of documenting the negligence of the federal government to anticipate the needs of emancipation. And so he writes, “where ex-bondspeople were to live, what they were to eat, and how they would find suitable work had not been asked.” This is all too true, but as another historian, Robert Engs, urged–scholars must study the lives of blacks in emancipation to see how they overcame, negotiated, and adapted to the circumstances presented them. The families at President’s Island, who transitioned from slaves to farmers after the war, provide a perfect case for study.

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