SEE RESIDENTIAL HOUSING AVAILABLE NOW
Fort Monroe gets push as a national park
By Kate Wiltrout
This historic Army post may have won over a most important ally on Wednesday: Cabinet member Ken Salazar, secretary of the interior. Salazar toured the 570-acre base in Hampton before meeting with about 150 citizens, almost all of whom indicated strong support for making Fort Monroe a national park after the Army departs in September.
As head of the federal agency that oversees the National Park Service, and as President Barack Obama's point man on preserving and protecting the nation's heritage and natural resources, Salazar could be pivotal in making that happen.
He was clearly impressed with what he saw inside and outside the moated stone fort at the heart of the property.
"This is an incredible place," he told the audience gathered at Bay Breeze Community Center on the fort's easternmost beach.
Later, at a meeting with The Virginian-Pilot editorial board, Salazar said Fort Monroe could become a great example of an urban national park, and it is clearly in line with Obama's great outdoors initiative.
He also commented on the fort's pivotal role in emancipation, beginning with Union Army Gen. Benjamin Butler's decision to allow three escaped slaves sanctuary during the opening days of the Civil War in 1861.
That decision sparked an exodus as thousands of slaves flocked to what became known as Freedom's Fortress.
Although his initial decision was tactical - Butler needed the men's labor and wanted to deny it to Confederate forces - he quickly decided to allow women, children and elderly slaves to claim the fort's protection, too.
Historians say the mass migration, and the practical issue of what to do with a flood of humanity in Hampton, helped spur President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
Salazar called Fort Monroe "the crucible" where Lincoln's legacy was born.
"I don't know that I've been to another place that has the history Fort Monroe has," he said.
But creating a national park is usually a slow process, Salazar said, often requiring a decade or more to win the approval of Congress and complete the needed studies.
Legislation making part or all of Fort Monroe a national park has been proposed and has bipartisan support locally, in Richmond and among members of Virginia's congressional delegation.
But with just 2-1/2 months remaining until the Army turns the property over to the state - in compliance with the 2005 Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission's recommendation - a quicker option has become a priority: getting the president to declare the fort a national monument using powers granted to him by the Antiquities Act.
Salazar indicated that Obama is considering that option. He told the audience that the president asked him to visit the base, and said Obama is familiar with its unique role in history.
He also said it's important for local communities and regional officials to broadly support the creation of a park through the Antiquities Act.
On Wednesday, the mayor of Hampton, two U.S. representatives, state officials and staff members representing both Virginia's senators spoke in support of using the act to create a national park.
So did the crowd.
At the end of the public meeting, Salazar asked everyone in attendance to vote for one of three scenarios: no national park, a national park designated by the president, and a national park created by Congress.
There were no votes for the first scenario; the second option won in a landslide.
Jon Jarvis, the director of the National Park Service and a career employee, told the audience he doesn't recall any potential park unit having this level of bipartisan support.
Democrats and Republicans might be feuding over the budget in Washington, but U.S. Reps. Bobby Scott, D-Newport News, and Scott Rigell, R-Virginia Beach, made it clear they're united on this issue.
Multiple speakers noted that Fort Monroe has an especially strong link to slavery because the first enslaved Africans brought to the New World arrived on the island that became the fort.
Rigell said some parts of the nation's history fall painfully short of the ideals set out in the Declaration of Independence, but they cannot be ignored: "This story needs to be told. It needs to be told right here."
Also, both of Virginia's U.S. senators introduced a bill Wednesday that would make Fort Monroe a national park.
One tidbit from the morning's tour seemed to stick with Salazar: the Algernourne oak, a stately live oak on the perimeter of the parade ground inside the moat.
According to historian John Quarstein, one of Salazar's tour guides, the tree dates to 1569.
It witnessed Native Americans hunting nearby, the arrival of English colonists and African slaves, Butler's decision, and the Civil War, Quarstein noted.
Salazar mentioned the oak during the public meeting, saying it has seen the entire history and evolution of our country.
What happened around that tree over more than 400 years cannot be forgotten, he said, and he borrowed a phrase from the Preamble to the Constitution:
"The preservation and the telling of that story is part of making a more perfect union."
Kate Wiltrout, (757) 446-2629, firstname.lastname@example.org