In an appeal to Northern sympathizers published in September 1862 in the Boston-based abolitionist newspaper “The Liberator,” Harriet Jacobs, an escaped slave, reported the conditions of the “contrabands.”
“I went to Duff Green’s Row, government headquarters for the contrabands here. I found men, women and children all huddled together without any distinction or regard to age or sex. Some of them were in the most pitiable condition,” Jacobs wrote. “Many were sick with measles, diptheria, scarlet or typhoid fever. Some had a few filthy rags to lie on, others had nothing but the bare floor for a couch. . . . Some of them have been so degraded by slavery that they do not know the usages of civilized life: they know little else than the handle of the hoe, the plough, the cotton pad, and the overseer’s lash.”
It was people such as Keckley and Jacobs who stepped up to help.
“Each one attempted to care for the needs of African Americans in the communities where they lived,” Medford said. “Keckley, for instance, helped to establish the Contraband Relief Fund.” Jacobs established a school for freedmen in Alexandria. Itinerant preacher Sojourner Truth worked first at Freedman’s Village and later at Freedman’s Hospital, the forerunner of Howard University Hospital.
Struggling for equality
At the end of the war, an entire federal agency, the Freedmen’s Bureau, was created to deal with education, welfare and jobs. A special 1867 Census ordered by Congress counted 31,937 free and emancipated blacks in the District, double the number before the war.
Thousands were engaged in loading and unloading supplies from docks and helping to build military hospitals. They were “vital contributors to the war effort,” according to Leslie Rowland, a history professor at the University of Maryland.
While some free blacks devoted themselves to improving life for their newly liberated brethren, others worked to sign them up in the war effort. Men such as the Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, pastor of Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church, and Gurden Snowden, an early trustee at Asbury Church, rallied black men to enlist in the city’s First Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops.
By spring 1863, the unit had become the first black regiment directly mustered into federal service (as opposed to those bearing state charters), said Gibbs, author of “Black, Copper, and Bright: The District of Columbia’s Black Civil War Regiment.” It drew men from California, Canada and the Caribbean.