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The original item was published from 5/10/2021 5:31:12 PM to 5/19/2021 2:58:55 PM.

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Hampton History Museum

Posted on: May 10, 2021

[ARCHIVED] Searching for Slabtown: History & Archaeology of Hampton’s Grand Contraband Camp - May 24, 7 pm

Grand Contraband Camp LOC SQUARE

In this virtual event, Dr. Matthew R. Laird, Partner & Senior Researcher of the James River Institute for Archaeology, Inc., will present the archaeological findings from the survey of the community that evolved in the ruins of Hampton after it was abandoned by Virginians following succession from the Union in 1861. Through mapping, research, and careful excavation in coordination with the Hampton History Museum and the City of Hampton, the team located the camp in present-day downtown Hampton. Laird will talk about the discoveries, successes, and challenges in analyzing the artifacts and interpreting the evidence of contraband camps as a window into the past.

Working in conjunction with the Hampton History Museum, archaeologists and historians of the James River Institute for Archaeology, Inc. (JRIA) unearthed intriguing physical and documentary evidence of Hampton’s Grand Contraband Camp, a Civil War-era African American community which developed in the shadow of Fort Monroe, “Freedom’s Fortress.”  

In the summer of 2014, the James River Institute for Archaeology, Inc. (JRIA) worked with the Hampton History Museum to identify and excavate a portion of the Grand Contraband Camp, a large community of recently enslaved African Americans who came to the Union-controlled area around Fort Monroe, seeking to begin new lives in freedom.  The project area, which was located in downtown Hampton, had been heavily disturbed by later development.  Even so, JRIA’s targeted testing revealed a dense concentration of intact features and artifacts associated with the Grand Contraband Camp.  Dr. Laird’s background research also uncovered a fascinating, and as yet untapped, trove of information which documents the emergence in the early 1870s of a community of African American freeholders on the former Grand Contraband Camp property.  Descendant oral histories indicate that, despite large-scale urban redevelopment efforts, this community has persisted to this day.  As a result of the 2014 study, it is evident that the surviving archaeological remains of the Grand Contraband Camp offer great potential for exploring the African American experience in Virginia during the Civil War and Reconstruction.  

Dr. Matthew R. Laird is a Partner and Senior Researcher with the James River Institute for Archaeology, Inc.  A native of Ottawa, Canada, he earned a Ph.D. in American History from the College of William and Mary.  Over the past 25 years, he has worked as an historian and archaeologist in the cultural resource management field.  Dr. Laird directed the 2014 archaeological investigation of the Grand Contraband Camp site in Hampton.  This project furthered his interest in the archaeology of urban African American sites which began when he helped to unearth the notorious Lumpkin’s Slave Jail in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom.  

This talk is held as part of "Fort Monroe Contraband Decision, and the Legacy of Freedom Seekers," virtual events beginning on Saturday, May 22nd at 6 pm, in conjunction with the Fort Monroe National Monument/National Park Service, Fort Monroe Authority, Contraband Historical Society, and Hampton History Museum in remembrance of the agency exhibited by Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Shepard Mallory in securing their freedom and serving as a catalyst to the tens of thousands who followed finding refuge behind Union lines during the American Civil War.

After the Grand Contraband Camp archaeology lecture debuts on Facebook Live, it can be found under the video tab on the museum’s Facebook page, and later on the museum’s YouTube playlist, and website,

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