SEE RESIDENTIAL HOUSING AVAILABLE NOW
Hampton's forgotten legacy
October 06, 2010 | By David Squires | Urban Affairs
I like to tell people that Hampton Roads is so rich in talent, resources and diversity that it should be setting national examples in such areas as education, public safety and economic development.
I like to say that there should be not a single poor person in Hampton Roads and that this area should not have any ghettos or bad neighborhoods.
Now after hearing a recent lecture at the American Theater in Phoebus, I'm wondering if I lived another life in 19th century Hampton, an apparent happy time that most historians have ignored, according to Robert F. Engs, Professor Emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania, who has also served as a visiting professor at William & Mary.
Engs described a Hampton that was predominantly black, but diverse – even largely bi-racial - and which was very serious about politics and education. And he shrugged as he pondered how today's African-American leaders seemed to have dropped the ball, not to mention how too many local African-Americans are ignoring their own history, much of which Engs detailed in a 1979 book, "Freedom's First Generation: Black Hampton, Va., 1861-1890."
Engs visited Hampton recently as keynote lecturer for "the Birth of Africa in America," which was sponsored by the Hampton 400th Anniversary Committee. Engs said that the true contraband slave story gives hints to the society of black Hampton in the 1800s, and he said historians have purposely obscured the story to make a hero out of Gen. Benjamin Butler at Fort Monroe -- rather than the three men who sought their freedom.
He said the three men -- Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker and James Townsend -- believed they had rights, and thus they showed up at the fort to exercise those rights.
Eventually the three men were joined by 900 other local slaves, then another 10,000 by the end of the war.
"Mallory, Baker and Townsend already thought and acted like free men, no matter what the law was. Their courage – indeed one might even call it their arrogance -- in defense of their rights should make us probe more deeply into the kind of society in which they evolved."
"The non-white residents of Hampton were more American than African, even down to the color of their skin," Engs said. "All this was possible because of the close interaction between black and whites in the shared public spaces, work place, in homes in churches and even in boudoirs of the county.
"The contraband of Hampton were not the happy darkies of Old South myth," Engs said. "These were real men and women who had forced their white owners into concessions that transcended written law.
"This didn't happen in slavery elsewhere, not even in Norfolk."
He said it was important to note that "for a few decades, Hampton got it right, and that truth has largely been ignored and almost denied."