When you hear the term “concentration camp”, what do you think of? For most of us who have taken a history class, images of Nazi Germany and Hitler pop into our heads. Most of us already know about the history of violence and dehumanization directed at Jewish populations [as well as Polish people, disabled people, homosexuals, etc.] during WWII where they were forced into labor and/or death camps because of pure bigotry. However, did you know that the U.S. also had concentration camps during the civil war for former slaves who were free?
“During the Civil War authorities in Natchez, Mississippi forced tens of thousands of freed slaves into camps built in what’s known as “The Devil’s Punchbowl”…Historians estimate that in one year following Union troops’ arrivals in Natchez, up to 20,000 freed slaves died in ‘contraband camps’ below steep bluffs.”
Those bluffs are known to local residents today for their wild peach groves. Little did they know that a massive grave was hidden beneath the brush.
Researcher Paula Westbrook states that when slaves left plantations, they ran to Natchez and were trapped there in an encampment.
Black men were re-captured and forced to perform hard labor, while women and children were left in the “punchbowls” to die. Former director of Natchez City Cemetery, Don Estes, states:
“Disease broke out among ‘em, smallpox being the main one. And thousands and thousands died. They were begging to get out. ‘Turn me loose and I’ll go home back to the plantation! Anywhere but there’”
It’s going to be difficult to get further physical data from the site considering the bluffs are dangerous to navigate. Oftentimes skeletal remains will wash up after flooding occurs on the Mississippi river which is a constant reminder that unheard narratives of suffering and brutalization are waiting to be excavated.
Estes states “…There’s the devil’s punchbowl that has so many people that no one knows how they got killed or when.”
While the discovery of the massive grave is a great find for our historical record, it demonstrates just how deep the suffering was for black people who were considered “free.” Disheveled bones from brutalized bodies are all that are left to tell the stories of racism and white supremacy. This find also demonstrates just how little we still know about our ancestors. Understanding our past helps in understanding our contemporary lives.
Though slavery may be an uncomfortable topic for our postracial generation today where we act as though slave ships were cruise ships, punchbowl serves as a reminder that black people were brutally dehumanized in this nation, and no matter how equal we all think we are, perhaps we can look to the ways that “freed” enslaved people were treated to understand how we too might still have a tradition of discrimination in our own government today.
With each peach tree that grows on punchbowl land, let it serve as an inconvenient reminder to our comfortable lives that racism is alive, and that we can never forget the horrors of slavery.