Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.Matthew 18:20

In the beginning their voices were largely silenced, their laments smuggled across the fields in hollers and chants, or rising skyward in spirituals and “corn ditties” sung in makeshift churches where clouds formed the ceilings and piles of brush made do in place of walls. Their blood and their toil were clearly evident, however, in the lush fields of cotton, the palatial homes and the lavish plantation social system that set the stage for what others knew as the “chivalrous South.” With the Civil War came freedom, however, and with freedom African Americans in the Mississippi Hills found their voices, rich, clear and strong, and today what seems remarkable is not only how unique and powerful each of those voices proved to be, but how beautifully they harmonized with others. The African American story in the Mississippi Hills is a chronicle of both triumphant individualism as well as transcendent community, beginning with African Americans’ very first exercise in freedom-an experiment, really-in Corinth, in 1862.

In that year, with his eye on his own prize in Vicksburg, General U.S. Grant faced a nagging problem in Corinth, where thousands of escaped slaves had fled seeking refuge. What to do with these crowds of not-quite-free people?

While it ultimately proved to be an opportunity lost, for one brief moment Grant’s solution was a paradise found, a social experiment ennobled by a communal spirit that defied the odds to create a model for the rest of the nation. The only surviving accounts of this time and place are those of white observers and participants. This may explain why this astonishing utopia was born and died under the mundane and misleading name of Contraband Camp.

Perhaps Noah Webster could take partial credit for the misnomer, for it was a new and slightly surreal definition that gave rise to it in the first place.

A slave by any other name…

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Contraband: goods prohibited by law or treaty from being imported or exported
Camp: a place where an army or other group of persons or an individual is lodged in a tent or tents or other temporary means of shelter. 

The politics facing General Grant were simple: the escapees could not be classified as free; they could not be shipped north or west. Nor could they be colonized to Haiti or another Southern destination, a goal the future President Grant would later cling to. The answer then had to be the Contraband Camp.

Union General Benjamin Butler had already pioneered the concept in Virginia when a Confederate leader had actually demanded the return of escape slaves under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Butler had declared the escaped slaves “contraband,” a formulation that had pleased the conservatives in Congress, while keeping the humans in question out of the hands of the Confederates.

Grant appointed the young chaplain John Eaton as General Superintendent of Contrabands for the Department of the Tennessee, and Chaplain James Alexander was made the commandant of in the camp in Corinth. Alexander and the camp both quickly proved their worth.

A brave new world.

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Under Alexander’s leadership, the camp almost immediately transformed itself into what would soon be recognized as a “well-organized village.” The tents disappeared, replaced by cabins built with logs hewn from the nearby forests; streets were laid out, wards organized, public buildings were constructed, including a school, a commissary, a hospital, and a church hung with live moss. Skilled laborers from blacksmiths to carpenters to shoemakers to seamstresses began to ply their trades so that the camp was soon completely self-sufficient. Even garbage collection was seen to.

What’s more, by cultivating 400 acres of abandoned and confiscated lands, 300 acres of which were planted in a lucrative cotton crop, the “contrabands,” as the former slaves were now called, were contributing a monthly profit of approximately $4,000 to the U.S. Treasury.

The contrabands (or community members, as they surely must have considered themselves) applied themselves to their own education and to their religion as diligently as they worked in the fields. As one missionary noted, “You will find them at every hour of the daylight at their books.” Church attendance was nearly universal, with four black ministers taking up the call.

Community members also took up the call to arms once it was finally issued. Months before it was officially allowed, Alexander organized a Camp guard company, and when the Union Army began to recruit blacks, Alexander resigned from his post to lead a black regiment. White Camp officials worried that a collapse might occur without the male workers, who had to a man volunteered for Army service. Instead the women and children took up the burden; productivity never lagged. In the regiment, the same drive for self-improvement was undimmed: soldiers each paid a monthly tax to employ regimental teachers and purchase more books.

Unfortunately, even as the war was being won, this brave social experiment was fighting a losing battle. In 1864, when Sherman set out to capture Meridian, he ordered all garrisons back to Memphis. The Contraband Camp was abandoned, its people shipped north and eventually scattered. As quickly as this utopia had materialized, it disappeared.

Still, with the War was drawing to a close, African Americans were about to enter new era. There was opportunity and freedom ahead as well as danger and despair. In the Mississippi Hills, leaders and communities would arise to face those challenges.

Learning and leading.

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Once the war was over and freedom was attained, education was the next goal for African Americans in the Hills. In 1866 in Holly Springs, on the former site of slave auctions, Shaw University was established, only the second college in the nation founded for the express purpose of African American education. Over the course of the next century and half, Rust College, as the school would be renamed, became a center of social and educational excellence. However, it would be in the early decades of the school’s founding that two leaders closely associated with the college would step forward to make history.

One of those leaders, Hiram Revels, a Rust College teacher, made laws as the first African American to serve in the United States Senate. The other, Ida B. Wells, a Rust graduate, fought courageously against lawlessness and the vicious crime of lynching.

Revels, the unexpected.

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“(My race) aim not to elevate themselves by sacrificing one single interest of their white fellow-citizens. They ask but the rights which are theirs by God’s universal law.…”  — Hiram Revels

Born a free man in North Carolina and educated as a minister, Revels literally prayed his way to the U.S. Senate. In 1869, he was elected to represent Adams County in the Mississippi state senate, and in 1870, he gave the opening prayer for the legislative session, a prayer so inspiring it convinced the rest of the legislative body to appoint him to fill the last year of an un-expired U.S. Senate term, in a seat once held by Jefferson Davis.

As a U.S. Senator, Revels proved to be an iconoclast, arguing for the reinstatement of black legislators unfairly ousted from their posts in Georgia, while advocating amnesty and full restoration of citizenship to ex-Confederates who swore loyalty to the U.S. He also won a victory for black workers who had been barred by their color from working at the Washington Navy Shipyards. After he returned to Mississippi, Revels continued to carve out his own path, turning against the Republican Governor Adelbert Ames and surprising many by aligning himself with the state’s Democratic Party.

Ida B. Wells, on the other hand, surprised many simply by her existence. Born a slave, orphaned by yellow fever at 16 with five younger siblings to care for, Wells proved irrepressible. She would not be stopped, and she not be silenced.

Wells, the courageous.

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“Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so.”  -Ida B. Wells

After graduation from Rust College, Wells secured her first job as at teacher at a county school.   “I came home every Friday afternoon riding the six miles on the back of a big mule,” she remembered later.

But it was a ride on a train that pushed Wells into activism, when in 1883 she was denied a seat in the ladies coach. 80 years before Rosa Parks, Ida Wells filed suit, and while her legal victory was overturned, her career and her outlook were forever changed. Writing about her cause convinced her to become a journalist, a post where she would achieve her true greatness in speaking out against the rising tide of violence in the post-Reconstruction South.

So courageous was her opposition to lynching that death threats exiled her from her home for the next 40 years. Wells refused to back down, however, and remained politically active throughout her life, as a suffragist and as a founding member of the NAACP.

For other African Americans in the North Mississippi Hills, life was also fraught with difficulties and the threat of violence, but there were opportunities, as well, in vibrant communities like Shakerag in Tupelo and Freedmen Town in Oxford, and in Columbus, in particular, in an area spreading out from Catfish Row, where the nation’s leading musicians and athletes came to play.

Striving, thriving in Columbus.

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There had been black freemen in Columbus since the early days of settlement when “the Big Black Tanner” William Cooper ran a tan yard and trading post where Europeans and Chickasaws did business. And Cooper wasn’t the only successful entrepreneur. Freed slave Horace King became one of the area’s preeminent bridge builders, and before becoming a barber, grocer, and saloon owner, local businessman Jack Raab made his first transaction with the purchase of his own freedom. In 1843, freemen Isaac and Thomas Williams built their four-room, two-story house that would come to be known as the Haven.

From the very beginning, Columbus also provided havens for African American worship, even if they were found at first in the basement of another church in the case of Missionary Union Baptist church, or in the outdoor brush arbor in the case of Shiloh Missionary Church. After the war, those congregations were finally able to build their own sanctuaries, even as others like the Concord CME Church were formed as well.

By the end of the nineteenth century Columbus’s African American culture and commerce were thriving, particularly along Catfish Alley, the community’s primary business district. The Queen City Hotel, constructed in 1909 by former slave Robert Walker, became a favorite stop for professional baseball players and for such nationally known performing artists as Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, B. B. King, Duke Ellington, and James Brown.

African Americans in the Mississippi Hills were finding their own paths and their own voice, in the streets and in the churches and in a new art form that arose from old traditions and that took on special characteristics here in the Hills. When the blues came north from the Mississippi Delta, the bluesmen of the Hills would create their own distinctive version.

Up high in the hills, the lowdown blues.

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The first and foremost bluesman of the Mississippi Hills, Chester Arthur Burnett, better known to the world as Howlin’ Wolf, was born outside West Point to teenage parents and to a bitterly hard life of abandonment, back-breaking work and abuse. Driven by his phenomenal talent and a will to survive, he walked barefoot the 80 miles to the Delta to find his father, as later he would find fame and fortune in Chicago.

While Howlin Wolf didn’t return to the Hills, there were other notable bluesmen who did. After sharecropping, fishing and playing at house parties failed to provide a living in Holly Springs, R. L. Burnside migrated to Chicago where many of his relatives had settled, including his cousin by marriage, Muddy Waters. But when within the span of a single month, Burnside’s father, brother and uncle were all murdered in that city, he returned to the Hills, where he led the way in creating a new, raw blues style, influenced by Mississippi Fred McDowell, and driven by the relentless fife and drum beat of music of Hills artist Otha Turner.

A kind of ad hoc blues community eventually formed around bluesman Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint in Chulahoma. The Hill Country bluesmen’s raucous approach to their art-and to their lives-would make them legends. Before it burned in 2000, the Chulahoma club was the pilgrimage of choice for rockers like the Rolling Stones, Sonic Youth and U2.

By then homage from white rockers to African American innovators had become a ritual nearly a half-century old, begun when a poor white boy from the Mississippi Hills incorporated blues into his own particular form of rock and roll.

However, in 1962, it was a young African American scholar and leader, James Meredith, who rocked a belligerent state with a one simple demand: equality.

Courage under fire.

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An Air Force veteran born in Kosciusko in 1933, James Meredith attended Jackson State for two years before he applied to the University of Mississippi. It took two tries and cadre of federal marshals to get Meredith through the University gates, on October 1, 1962, a day followed by violent rioting that left two people dead, and nearly one hundred injured. Once order was restored, Meredith, like many African Americans in the Hills before him, persevered in a hostile environment, graduating with a degree in history. Still later, he refused to be defined by his most famous moment; not unlike Revels who aligned himself with Democrats, Meredith has over the years made surprising alliances, refusing to march to anyone’s drummer but his own.

Another notable from the Mississippi Hills who resists definition was also born in Kosciusko, to two unmarried teenagers. Her mother a housemaid and her father a barber, she spent her first six years with her grandmother Hattie Mae. The child was named Orpah Gail Winfrey after the Book of Ruth, but folks around Kosciusko couldn’t seem to say the name correctly, and eventually she was called Oprah Gail Winfrey. Later, the “Gail” and the “Winfrey” would become superfluous.

A world-wide phenomenon.

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In her first six years of life, Oprah learned to read (at age three) and to recite so many Bible verses she was nicknamed the Preacher at the church she and her grandmother attended. At home, she was already practicing for her future profession, interviewing her corncob dolls and the crows that sat on the property’s fence. Although her life would take her away from the Mississippi Hills, Oprah’s connection to the area remains strong.

When one of her aunts suggested that Kosciusko needed a Boys and Girls Club, she funded the construction of a state-of-the-art facility that has drawn praise as well as visitors to the area. For a recent Book Club selection, she chose works of William Faulkner, a fellow Hills resident.  Faulkner donated a portion of his 1949 Nobel Prize earnings toward a scholarship fund for students at Rust College; still, could he have imagined “the Oprah effect” on American reading habits, and on American culture itself?

When Oprah speaks, millions listen, and where once the residents of the Mississippi Hills made vibrant communities with each other, Oprah’s community has, famously, grown to include the entire world.