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Slavery had beginning, end at Fort Monroe
The first slaves were sold at the site, and a fort commander protected runaway slaves.
By LARA C. CHAPMAN | 247-4731
Fort Monroe has a story to tell.
The story goes back to 1619 when Africans arrived by ship on American soil. They were the first of their kind, and they came as objects of trade. The ship by which they traveled headed toward Jamestown at Old Point Comfort. But their captor, a British privateer, made a stop at the newly fortified site. There, the black foreigners were introduced as slaves, and an American institution was born.
Then, 242 years later, three runaway slaves found freedom at Fort Monroe. On the night of May 23, 1861, Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townshend appeared at the fort after fleeing Confederate forces. Their owner, Col. Charles K. Mallory, demanded their rightful return.
Instead of granting the colonel's requests, Union commander Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler declared the men "contrabands of war."
Butler's bold act sparked a chain reaction throughout the South. And by the end of the war, 10,000 contraband slaves were set free at "Freedom Fort."
"Fort Monroe is our Ellis Island," said Gerri L. Hollins, contraband slave descendant and CEO of the Contraband Historical Society. "It marks the beginning of slavery and the beginning of the end of slavery."
According to Hollins, the preservation and retelling of Fort Monroe's story should be at the forefront of African-American history. "This powerful legacy reaches beyond the walls of 'Freedom Fortress,' and more people need to understand the value in it."
Although the Casemate Museum has served as Fort Monroe's historical mouthpiece since opening in 1951, the contraband story is merely a sidebar. Most exhibits focus on the fort's vital role in securing the Union victory during the Civil War. That will change when the Fort Monroe Federal Area Development Authority gains sovereignty over the historic post once the army leaves in 2011.
"We haven't yet identified a master plan, but the contraband story will be highlighted," said the authority's Deputy Director Conover Hunt. "Much of that history has yet to be interrupted and a great deal of research still needs to be done."
For African-American historians and contraband descendants, stories like this shouldn't be ignored.
"It's been 147 years since the first contrabands were declared free, and we don't even have a monument in Hampton" Hollins said. "There isn't enough respect for this story ó and that needs to change."
For more information about Fort Monroe's past, present and future, contact: