Written by Rob Nieweg
On June 8th, in a letter to the White House, National Trust for Historic Preservation president Stephanie Meeks asked President Obama to exercise his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate historic Fort Monroe as a National Monument, which would make the 565-acre fortress an official part of the National Park system.
Fort Monroe is one of the nation’s most important landmarks of US military and African American heritage. One hundred fifty years ago, three enslaved men, Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker, and James Townsend, escaped the Confederate Army and fled by boat to Virginia’s Fort Monroe. There, the Union Army commander seized these men as “contraband” of war, an unusual legal maneuver that provided refuge and relative freedom for the three men, and in turn, heralded the beginning of the end of slavery in America. Over the course of the Civil War, more than 500,000 African American women, children, and men would follow in the footsteps of Mallory, Baker, and Townsend, leading to one of the Civil War’s most extraordinary—and overlooked—chapters. It is imperative that we commemorate the hard struggles and unprecedented triumphs of these self-emancipators, and permanently preserve the nationally important historic site where these momentous events took place.
Importantly, June 8th also is the 105th anniversary of the enactment of the Antiquities Act, which presidents have used to enshrine and protect some of America’s most important and beloved historic places, from President Lincoln’s Cottage to the Statue of Liberty to Chaco Canyon. A creative partnership of the National Park Service, Fort Monroe Authority, and Virginia Department of Historic Resources can ensure that future generations of Americans will learn from, and be inspired by, this vital piece of American history. Creation of a new National Monument at Fort Monroe is supported by Virginia’s Governor Bob McDonnell, U.S. Senators Jim Webb and Mark Warner, Congressmen Bobby Scott, Randy Forbes, Scott Rigell, and Rob Wittman as well as the non-profit preservation and conservation communities.
For further information on “Contraband” Heritage please see our earlier post, The Contraband of America and the Road to Freedom.
Rob Nieweg is the director & regional attorney for the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Southern Field Office.