Categories: National Commentary

DTU National Interns Explore Ft. Monroe’s Role In America’s Complex Racial History

Fort Monroe, Virginia named after U.S. President James Monroe, holds many names and many legacies for many people.

Before the fort’s establishment, it was Native American territory. In 1609, it was built as Fort Algernourne. In 1619, a Dutch man-of-war arrived at what was known among sailors as Point Comfort, with the “20 and odd” Africans who would mark the beginning of slavery in the United States. In 1861, however, Major General Benjamin Butler made a landmark decision that would lead to the Fort’s transformative alias, “Freedom’s Fortress.”

In the middle of a fateful night in 1861, three enslaved men paddled over on a boat from Sewell’s Point, 15 miles away from Fort Monroe, seeking asylum. Virginia had just seceded from the Union, but Fort Monroe remained under Union control.

When their owner arrived to reclaim them as property citing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Major General Benjamin Butler, the fort’s commander at the time, reminded the owner that since Virginia seceded, the laws of the U.S. Constitution were no longer binding in Virginia. Butler seized the three men as “contraband of war,” and sent their former owner away.

Butler’s decision brought thousands of escaped slaves to Fort Monroe seeking freedom. They became known as the “contrabands”.

Today, inside Fort Monroe’s Casemate museum, the exhibit highlighting this decision is juxtaposed right next to the Robert E. Lee exhibit and the cell that Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy, was confined to after his capture.

Museum historian W. Robert Kelly says this is no accident. There is a glass case in the Robert E. Lee exhibit with descriptors of the Confederate general bordering the top: statesman, slaveowner, husband, traitor, soldier, rebel. The positioning of these exhibits and the contradictions lining their cases often lead visitors to intense discussions of the true legacy of the Civil War era.

In 1619, a Dutch man-of-war arrived at what was known among sailors as Point Comfort, with the “20 and odd” Africans who would mark the beginning of slavery in the United States.

“If we can make a visitor think, if we can make a visitor a little uncomfortable, I think then we’re doing our job,” said Kelly. “A lot of history is very complex and it often is not cut and dry. It often is raw and sometimes makes you uncomfortable,” said Kelly.

The Fort receives a diverse attendance, from former US Army soldiers who served at the fort, to history teachers, from people looking to know more about the contraband decision to people looking to honor Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The museum is a space where these people converge, bringing their unique perspectives, and hold the discussions necessary to grapple with the complex legacy of the United States.

History teacher Nicole Gasparik of California traveled across the country to get a closer account of the contraband story that she had been teaching to her eighth-grade class for about a year. She values the story because of its emphasis on “the agency of enslaved people in seeking freedom and forcing that on the Union.” The bravery of those three men forces everyone following the story to see that the Civil War was undeniably about slavery, she said.

In 2011, then-President Barack Obama named Fort Monroe his very first national monument. Five years later, the Fort Monroe National Monument named Terry E. Brown, a Grambling State University alumnus, its Park Superintendent.

He is the first African-American to serve in this capacity at Fort Monroe and one of a handful of African-American Park Superintendents in the United States (“somewhere under 10,” he said). The 27-year-veteran of the National Park Service took the same office that was occupied by First Lieutenant Robert E. Lee 185 years earlier during the final construction of the fort.

Terry E. Brown, a Grambling State University alumnus, is Park Superintendent and the first African-American to serve in this capacity at Fort Monroe and one of a handful of African-American Park Superintendents in the United States (“somewhere under 10,” he said).

As he moved up the ranks of the National Park Service, he quickly realized that something important was missing. He recalled not seeing his people reflected in many of the national parks he visited through the years. “I recognized that many of the places that I was visiting were not telling our story,” Brown said as he emphasized on the relevance of African American history to the entire country.

“Once I became superintendent of this National Monument, I remembered all those years where I kept thinking to myself if I ever become a manager, I’m going to make sure the stories that are relevant to me are told,” he said.

“I sit as superintendent of this space, next year commemorating 400 years from the time those enslaved people made it to Point Comfort,” Brown said. “This American story is relevant to all Americans, so my goal is to make sure everyone understands that.”

Since its recognition as a national monument and the hiring of its first African-American superintendent, Fort Monroe has made strides toward telling the full American story. However, it still has a ways to go. There are no markers for the sites that contraband camps extended. No slave quarters have been discovered and there is little to no recognition of the Native Americans that once occupied the land. Brown and his staff are working diligently to uncover the discrepancies in the true American story.

To view the DTU interns’ video on their Fort Monroe visit, go to https://youtu.be/TTHxvR-1kxs

By Ila Wilborn and Daja E. Henry
Photos by Natrawn Maxwell

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