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Fort's future should include past
April 15, 2010 | By David Squires | Urban Affairs, Daily Press
Can Hampton Roads accept, embrace, even promote and sell its historical links to the Civil War and the institution of slavery in the United States?
To date, the region's links to its historical past are mainly discussed among academics or as part of public school lessons.
But a Pennsylvania firm recently pitched a master plan to draw on the Civil War-era heritage in reshaping Fort Monroe, after the Army hands it over to Virginia in 2011.
As Daily Press reporter David Macaulay explained it, the master plan envisions Fort Monroe "as a visitor magnet and teacher institute that would draw on the post's Civil War heritage and its role in the demise of slavery."
The plan envisions Fort Monroe as the center of a network of museums that works with other local museums and historical groups to attract tourists to a wide range of programs.
The plan is the most creative and ambitious made public for Fort Monroe. Other speculation for the land's future has ranged from upscale waterfront condominiums preferred by developers to great green spaces and nature preserves preferred by environmental groups.
The plan is also more politically popular, for now anyway, than my suggestion for a casino at the Fort Monroe site.
Steve Corneliussen, co-founder of Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park, has also suggested the area's links to slavery not be buried when the fort closes.
Part of the history is that Fort Monroe remained in Union hands during the Civil War and helped shelter thousands of slave refugees, earning the nickname "Freedom Fortress."
Of course, there is more to the story, and it will be important that the historians tell the story as completely as possible.
But meanwhile, the notion of a Freedom Fortress hub was embraced by representatives attending a meeting of Civil War Trails, which met on Wednesday at Fort Monroe's Casemate Museum, discussing such topics as the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
The timing is certainly right, according to Mitch Bowman, executive director of Civil War Trails, who said some emphasis on Civil War history is shifting from battlefields and warships to more human interest stories.
"And the election of the first African-American president has certainly helped raise interest," Bowman said.
He added that while historical travel accounts for 10 percent of tourism dollars generated in Virginia, a study by the U.S. Department of the Interior suggests the market potential is 25 percent higher.