Written by Rob Nieweg
Today President Obama created a new National Monument within the National Park system: Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia.
President Obama’s executive designation, pursuant to the Antiquities Act, honors Freedom’s Fortress as one of our most important national treasures, on a par with the Statue of Liberty and the Grand Canyon.
Located at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, Fort Monroe is a principal landmark of African American heritage. Old Point Comfort was the site of the 1619 First Landing of enslaved Africans in the English-speaking New World, and in 1861 it became the unique birthplace of the Civil War-era freedom movement. The May 1861 events at Fort Monroe inspired 500,000 African American women, children, and men - dubbed “contrabands” by the Union Army - to liberate themselves from bondage. They didn’t wait for permission, but made their way at great risk to relative safety behind Union lines, first at Fort Monroe and shortly thereafter at the ring of fortifications surrounding the nation’s capital. The courage and plight of the freedom seekers influenced national politics and hastened President Lincoln’s formal Emancipation Proclamation. Today, there is no better place, however, than Fort Monroe and nearby Hampton University - under the legendary Emancipation Oak - to understand the personal struggles and triumphs of the freedom seekers, a chapter of American history too often relegated to the margins of traditional Civil War scholarship. But, this is a new day.
The U.S. Army has been a good steward of Fort Monroe for almost 200 years. The transition away from the fort’s original military use requires planning, pursuant to the National Historic Preservation Act, to ensure that Fort Monroe is carefully preserved and skillfully adapted for compatible new productive uses. Yeoman’s work already has been done by the Army, Fort Monroe Authority, and Virginia Department of Historic Resources to prepare preservation-based protections for the 180 historic structures - including a massive, moated stone fortress - which contribute to the architectural character of Fort Monroe. Kathleen Kilpatrick, the Virginia State Historic Preservation Officer, and Bill Armbruster, original director of the Fort Monroe Authority, deserve medals for their leadership.
As an advocate, the National Trust has been working to preserve Fort Monroe since 2005, shortly before the Base Realignment and Closure Commission decided to shutter the historic military post. The National Trust has served on the master plan steering committee and the historic preservation advisory group for the Fort Monroe Authority. Over the years we have worked closely with our partners at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, National Park Service, Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, Preservation Virginia, National Parks Conservation Association, Civil War Trust, as well as with grassroots groups like Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park and The Contraband Historical Society. It’s been a team effort.
In addition to President Obama, credit for the National Monument designation is due to many public officials who have joined in recognizing Fort Monroe’s importance to the nation. The thank you list includes Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, U.S. Senators Jim Webb and Mark Warner, members of Congress Bobby Scott, Scott Rigell, Randy Forbes, and Rob Wittman, the whole Congressional Black Causcus, as well as Interior Secretary Salazar and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis. We all owe special thanks to Hampton’s Mayor Molly Ward, a passionate and effective champion for preservation of Fort Monroe.
Of course, this isn’t the end of the story at Fort Monroe. Now comes the hard work of preparing and implementing detailed plans for conserving Fort Monroe’s outstanding scenic, natural, architectural, and cultural assets while encouraging sustainable economic development strategies so that Fort Monroe remains a vital community where people live, work, and visit. The National Trust will continue to play an active role at Fort Monroe, with special attention paid to ensure that the full and unvarnished stories of the “Contraband” heritage of self-emancipation are interpreted at Fort Monroe.
But first, a celebration and a request to you: Please join the National Trust in sending a personal thank you to President Obama.
Rob Nieweg leads the National Trust’s Washington Field Office, which works to save historic places in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.