Hampton Roads Community News

Telling Fort Monroe’s Full Black History

By Sheri Bailey and Steven T. Corneliussen

August will bring national attention to slavery’s Virginia beginnings at Point Comfort, now called Fort Monroe where “20 and odd negars” came ashore in August 1619.   But just after the Civil War started, in May 1861, that precious Black history landscape was also where brave, enterprising Black slavery escapees forced slavery to begin crumbling.

The Army left Fort Monroe eight years ago. Today it’s in peril of being squandered. Black people and anyone who cares about the United States of America living up to its promise of freedom for all without the stain of slavery need to share this information with your family and friends.

Fort Monroe is the peninsula off to your right as you approach Hampton on the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel. It contains a moated stone fortress, built by stolen Black labor – slave labor. In the Civil War, it was the Union’s mighty, and mighty symbolic, bastion in Confederate Virginia.

That’s why, early in the war, it saw what University of Richmond president emeritus Edward L. Ayers has called “the greatest moment in American history.” Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. says that was when slavery escapees Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory and James Townsend heroically forced “the beginning of the end of slavery.”

By seeking sanctuary at the fort, Gates wrote, those three men “unofficially ignited” the self-emancipation movement that transformed the Civil War into a struggle for freedom. By war’s end, a half-million enslaved Americans joined the movement, many taking up arms for the Union. 

Baker, Mallory and Townsend symbolize those Black freedom seekers just as Point Comfort symbolizes the white-perpetrated start of slavery and Fort Monroe symbolizes its Black-initiated end. But Fort Monroe is also prime urban waterfront that politicians and business interests are primed to overdevelop “swanky condos” and breweries.

Long before the Army left, activists like the Black community’s late Gerri Hollins were promoting the Black history involved. Public demand evolved for a substantial national park at post-Army Fort Monroe.

But politicians contrived only a severely limited national monument–a form of national park- – on two disconnected parts of Fort Monroe’s bayfront. In 2014, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared that this split national monument wasn’t good enough. But he failed to get it unified. 

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The unification idea can be seen in a glance at the central illustration on the Save Fort Monroe Network website, FortMonroeNationalPark.org. In 2017, the mayors of Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk and Virginia Beach pointed to that site when joining others in calling for unification. 

In 2018, Virginia finally offered a sliver of land for token unification of the limited, split, token national monument. The Trump administration, which controls the National Park Service, said no. But what if the Black community spoke up with the spirit championed by the great 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass who declared, “Freedom must be demanded!”

Virginia’s official “Reimagine Fort Monroe” web page, never mentioning the national monument, proclaims the vision Virginia’s leaders always intended: “to redevelop this historic property into a vibrant, mixed-use community.” 

A national treasure is merely “this historic property”?! Virginia, not the National Park Service, controls Fort Monroe–including the visitor center under construction and the process for resolving the recent controversy over Fort Monroe’s high-visibility Jefferson Davis memorial park. 

The Save Fort Monroe Network website contains a link to a non-paywalled copy of a Washington Post op-ed explaining Fort Monroe’s peril in more detail.  Here’s how the op-ed ends:

“Baker, Mallory and Townsend made Fort Monroe into America’s preeminent historic landscape for civic memory of the self-emancipation movement–the big shift that pressed history toward actual completion of America’s founding as the first nation built on ideas.

“We should be talking about Fort Monroe as a possible World Heritage site with an undivided Freedom’s Fortress National Park that also takes into account rising sea level concerns. But without another big shift, it’s going to remain mostly a financially hobbled local development project.”

Black folks, we can no longer allow this history to be undocumented, unspoken and unknown. Our grapevine includes media, churches, temples, sororities, fraternities, the Urban League, NAACP chapters, Juneteenth National, Jack and Jill, Links, HBCU’s and private clubs along with community groups working to stop violence, protect the environment and provide social justice.

All are invited to collectively lift their voices on August 25, 2019 at the grand opening of the visitor’s center on the grounds of America’s most sacred space. Sacred because Fort Monroe is the place where what was declared in 1776 was finally realized in 1861 with a guarantee of freedom for all!

More information plus contact data: JuneteenthVA.org (Bailey) and FortMonroeNationalPark.org (Corneliussen).

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