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Speak up for preserving Fort Monroe
By Lacy Ward Jr.
This month, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and other high-level members of the Obama administration visited Fort Monroe, bringing a national spotlight to a place that has played a vital, yet little known role in American history.
Salazar was struck by what he saw, telling the audience that Fort Monroe is a "crown jewel that must be protected." National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, also in attendance, said the fort represents the "quintessential American story."
Fort Monroe is a critical part of our nation's military, maritime and civil rights history. I was heartened to hear the Obama administration is actively contemplating a new purpose for the fort after it is decommissioned by the Army in September, including using the Antiquities Act to designate Fort Monroe a national monument.
The process is far from over, and public involvement will be critical over the next few months. That is why Virginians need to make sure their voices are heard at two public meetings hosted by the National Park Service on July 19 at the Hampton Roads Convention Center.
Rather than allow the fort to be abandoned to an uncertain future, a diverse, bipartisan coalition - including Gov. Bob McDonnell, members of Virginia's congressional delegation and Hampton Mayor Molly Ward, as well as the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation Virginia - believe this irreplaceable historic place should be preserved.
If designated as a national monument, the fort's role as the birthplace of the Civil War-era "contraband" movement for self-emancipation would undoubtedly reach a wider audience.
The freedom movement, one of the least-known and most important chapters in U.S. history, started 150 years ago, when three brave enslaved men, Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker and James Townsend, escaped the Confederate Army and fled in a small boat to Fort Monroe.
There, the Union Army commander dubbed the men "contraband" of war, a novel legal maneuver that provided refuge for them and in turn, heralded the beginning of the end of slavery in America. Over the course of the Civil War, more than 500,000 enslaved people would follow in the footsteps of those first three at Fort Monroe, leading to one of the Civil War's most extraordinary - and overlooked - chapters.
For more than 100 years, U.S. presidents have used the Antiquities Act to enshrine and protect some of America's most important and beloved historic places, from the Grand Canyon to the Statue of Liberty to California's Joshua Tree. In Virginia, however, no site has ever been designated using the act.
President Barack Obama has yet to designate a national monument using the act, and I believe Fort Monroe would be an ideal place for him to exercise this authority for the first time.
As a national monument, not only would Fort Monroe's regional and national profile be significantly increased, it would also benefit from the coordinated stewardship efforts of the National Park Service, the Fort Monroe Authority and the esteemed Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
Working with local residents, elected officials and conservation and preservation groups, these agencies would ensure the fort's fascinating story reaches a wider audience.
The National Trust is a strong supporter of the Antiquities Act. Sometimes derided by opponents as a tool for federal overreach, the act can in fact be used to designate only lands of historic, scientific, cultural or scenic significance that are already owned by the federal government.
Mindful of the sensitivities surrounding the use of the act, the National Trust very rarely requests this type of executive action. In fact, only once in recent history - at President Abraham Lincoln's Cottage in Washington, D.C. - have we asked the executive branch to utilize the act to create a new national monument.
Since the cottage was designated in 2000, tens of thousands of Americans have visited this once-dilapidated, nearly forgotten site, a testament to the power of the Antiquities Act to preserve and improve key pieces of our heritage.
We feel strongly that Fort Monroe rises to a similarly high level of national significance. On the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, there is no better place to understand the "contraband" heritage than Fort Monroe, and no better way than creation of a national monument there to inspire contemporary dialogue about our nation's pursuit of justice through the determined will of its citizens.
I strongly encourage you to attend the public meeting July 19 to help secure Fort Monroe's rightful place as America's next national monument.
>Lacy Ward Jr. is an adviser to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, president of Preservation Virginia and director of the Robert Russa Moton Museum in Farmville. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.