Written by Stephanie Meeks
Thanksgiving is a time when our thoughts naturally turn to family, good health, friends and the other things we treasure in life. As I reflect on the past year here at the National Trust, we have many things to be thankful for. Among the many preservation successes to emerge from 2011, one that I am especially grateful for is President Obama’s recent decision to designate Virginia’s Fort Monroe as America’s newest National Monument.
The National Trust and our partners, including Preservation Virginia, have been actively engaged on this issue for many years. The President’s action will ensure not only that this important piece of American history will be preserved, but also—thanks to stewardship by the National Park Service and the Fort Monroe Authority—that the important story Fort Monroe has to tell about our nation’s storied past will now reach a wider audience of Americans.
While Fort Monroe has played a significant role in our nation’s military and maritime history, it is Fort Monroe’s role as the place that bookends America’s searing experience with slavery that makes this place such an important part of our country’s story.
In 1619, just two years before the Pilgrims celebrated the very first Thanksgiving, the first slave ship to arrive in the New World deposited its cargo of enslaved human beings near where Fort Monroe now stands. But, thankfully, Fort Monroe’s role in the nation’s struggle for civil rights does not end with that infamous event.
Over two hundred years later, as the Civil War raged, the courageous actions of a handful of enslaved people—along with the Union general in command of the Fort—heralded the beginning of the end of slavery in America. Until they set out to flee the Confederate Army in a small boat on the night of May 23, 1861, Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker and James Townsend had lived their entire lives as enslaved people. After they arrived at Fort Monroe, however, Union General Benjamin Butler, declared these men to be “contraband” of war. Over the course of the Civil War, as word of this momentous event spread throughout the South, more than 500,000 enslaved people would follow in the footsteps of these brave men, leading to one of our nation’s most extraordinary—and until now, overlooked—chapters.
With a stroke of a pen, the President elevated this little-known piece of American history and ensured its rightful place alongside famous monuments such as the Grand Canyon, Chaco Canyon and the Statue of Liberty. By designating Fort Monroe, the Obama Administration demonstrated why the Antiquities Act has been a tool used by nearly every 20thcentury president to preserve the crown jewels of our shared American heritage. From its first use—Theodore Roosevelt’s designation of Devil’s Tower in 1906 ―to George W. Bush’s designation of 140,000 square miles of ocean waters near Hawaii, the Antiquites Act has been employed more than 100 times.
No longer just a former military installation without a clear future, Fort Monroe will be transformed into a tourism hub, a job creator and a place where people from all across the country can visit to learn about personal courage, civil rights and our nation’s pursuit of freedom.
Successes like Fort Monroe are a reminder that preservation does not happen in isolation. In fact, preserving important places often takes years of hard work by dedicated local preservationists—people, who speak out, attend meetings, write letters to elected officials and post messages to Facebook on behalf of the places that are important to them and to people in their community. This Thanksgiving, I am thankful President Obama and hundreds of local preservationists recognized this important piece of our history.
And to all of the amazing, inspiring people who are working to save the places that matter in communities all across the country, thank you. Your work is something we can all be thankful for.
Stephanie Meeks is the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.