Park Ranger Tom Parson talked visitors through the camp’s history, an emerging story in recent years for many Corinthians who had never before heard of a contraband camp and its role in the Civil War.
Among those walking through the historic site was Larry Lugar, the sculptor who created the various bronze statues interpreting life in what was a model camp for the freed men, women and children.
“I love coming here by myself,” he said. “It’s a place of peace for me.”
His Lugar Foundry is based in Eads, Tenn., and he sometimes makes the 90-minute drive to Corinth to sit in the park and have a quiet moment.
He finds the camp’s story inspiring with “the fundamental change that occurred here" and "the idea that education can be perpetual,” he said. “It gives me goosebumps.”
He worked on the project for about three years and found his first real inspiration in a photograph of a woman taken in a South Carolina contraband camp. Standing proudly with her hands on her hips, she became the model for the “greeter” at the beginning of the park’s trail.
“When I saw that photograph, I was smitten,” he said.
Lugar sums up her attitude as: “I’m free. Sorry, it’s not going away.”
No photographs of the Corinth camp are known to exist, nor writings from those who came to it for freedom.
“Everything we know about the contraband camp comes from the pen of the white people who were here administering the camp, protecting the camp and were teaching the population,” said Parson. “We certainly hope that one day someone will discover in a closet, in a trunk somewhere, a series of letters written by someone who was here.”
Early during the war, slaves began to run away from their owners, seeking refuge with Union soldiers. This eventually led to the creation of the camps.
“Wherever there was a garrison of Union troops, there was a contraband camp,” said Parson.
Existing from November 1862 to December 1863, the Corinth camp was established on the land of Mary Phillips. Residents of the camp planted 300 acres in cotton and another 100 acres in vegetables. The food was sold back to the army, generating as much as $4,000 to $5,000 a month during the camp’s heyday around May 1863.
That’s “big money in 1863 dollars,” said Parson, and it gave residents their first paydays.
The American Missionary Association established the camp’s school, which had 100 children enrolled at the start.
“They began to teach children to read,” said Parson. “I don’t think I can overstate the significance of teaching a child to read at that point. You see, in the state of Mississippi, it was against the law to teach a black person to read or write. The children were taught during the day, but there was such a desire for this knowledge that night classes were held for adults.”
The camp’s end came in December 1863 as the residents were moved to Memphis, Tenn., where they became part of Camp Shiloh. There, they endured bitter cold and a poor camp where they had to throw together shacks for living.
“As organized and as wonderful as conditions were in Corinth, they were that bad in Memphis,” said Parson.