SEE RESIDENTIAL HOUSING AVAILABLE NOW
A fitting moment for Fort Monroe
On May 23, President Barack Obama should ensure that future generations learn the story of three young black men who - exactly 150 years ago - set out on a journey that would change the course of our nation's history.
Their names were Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory and James Townsend, each enslaved by a man who had cast his lot with the Confederacy and volunteered them to serve the same cause.
But the three - as Adam Goodheart, author of "1861: The Civil War Awakening," recounted in a recent New York Times Magazine piece - hoped for a different future. They rowed across the James River to Hampton's Fort Monroe, "a lonely Union redoubt in the heart of the new Confederate territory," to seek refuge.
The fort's newly arrived commander, a lawyer named Benjamin Butler who'd become a professional soldier less than a month before, was no abolitionist. But he saw a chance to drive a wedge into the Southern cause; he refused to return the slaves, claiming them as "contraband" of war.
The events touched off, in Goodheart's words, a "revolution in the minds of slaves." Freedom was now a real possibility. And Freedom's Fortress - as Fort Monroe became known to the tens of thousands of slaves who journeyed there - was where it would begin.
This fall, the U.S. Army is scheduled to vacate the fort and turn its 565 acres on the Chesapeake Bay over to the state of Virginia.
With the transfer of land, a rich and fascinating history also will be conveyed - a history that spans four centuries and is populated by Capt. John Smith, Chief Black Hawk, Edgar Allan Poe, Harriet Tubman, Jefferson Davis, Abraham Lincoln and many others. It's a history - retold last summer in "Free to Fight," a series by The Pilot's Kate Wiltrout - that encompasses slavery's earliest days and its end.
After several years of debate over what should become of this land and this history, plans now call for converting part of Fort Monroe into a national park. The state would rent some of the existing buildings and oversee low-intensity development designed to complement the park.
Supporters of this vision have asked the National Park Service to help draft legislation to add the fort to the park system, but so far there's been little progress.
Given the agenda facing Congress - and the difficulties building a consensus on much of anything on Capitol Hill these days - it's time to pursue a different route for securing the future of Fort Monroe.
A century-old law, the Antiquities Act, authorizes presidents to declare "objects of historic or scientific interest" as national monuments.
Over the years, the act has been invoked by Democratic and Republican administrations to preserve natural treasures such as the Grand Canyon and historic landmarks such as Harpers Ferry and Appomattox.
White House officials have been briefed on the history of Fort Monroe and its potential as a historic attraction and educational resource. It is reportedly on a short list of sites under consideration for designation as a national monument under the Antiquities Act.
In February, four members of the Hampton Roads congressional delegation - Republican Reps. Scott Rigell, Randy Forbes and Rob Wittman and Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott - sent a letter to the president urging him to use "all powers at your disposal to expedite" the designation of Fort Monroe as a national park.
In their letter, the congressmen note that a national conversation about the Civil War has started. They reflect upon the fort's history as the place where slavery began in the New World - the first ship carrying captive Africans arrived at what was then known as Old Point Comfort in 1619 - and as the place where slavery began to end.
"This is the first anniversary of the war," they write, "where a large number of historians and Americans are examining the war through the prism of the African Americans who experienced the war both in the North and the South, freeman and slave. That examination would be greatly enhanced with the incorporation of Fort Monroe into the National Park system."
And May 23 - the day Baker, Mallory and Townsend started a revolution of the mind - would be a fitting moment for the president to issue a proclamation to make Fort Monroe a national monument, to reinforce the proper place of Freedom's Fortress in America's imagination and in its history.