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Fort Monroe edging closer to Park Service status
By Mark St. John Erickson, Daily Press August 16, 2011
HAMPTON - At a time when political agreement seems increasingly hard to come by, Fort Monroe is standing out as a common ground.
Buoyed by strong bipartisan support from both local officials and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, the Obama administration is reportedly giving serious thought to designating the historic bastion at Old Point Comfort as a national monument.
"It has very high potential," National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis told Politico.com last week, describing widespread public support that includes local opinions expressed at a recent Park Service meeting in Hampton.
"I think there's almost 2,000 comments, of which - from what I understand - it's like unanimous, which is almost unheard of, that a portion of Fort Monroe be established as a unit of the National Park Service."
Unlike some past uses of the the 1906 Antiquities Act, which has caused controversy when the White House and local officials and lawmakers disagreed, the campaign to protect Fort Monroe by designating it as a national park has won support from both sides of the political aisle at every level.
Both of Virginia's Democratic senators are pushing a bill to make it a national park.So are U.S. Reps. Scott Rigell, R-Virginia Beach, and Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott, D-Newport News.
"There are few more significant sites in terms of African-American history anywhere in the country, and using the Antiquities Act to preserve this special place makes sense after the Army hands over the site next month," U.S. Sen. Mark Warner said in a statement.
Steeped in African-American history and celebrated for its crucial role in the Union effort during the Civil War, the landmark bastion could be tapped under the act, which gives the president the power to protect historic sites and objects of antiquity located on federal lands by setting them aside as national monuments.
The law was first used by President Theodore Roosevelt to protect such sites as Devils' Tower in Wyoming and the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and it was later used - in 1930 - as the first step toward protecting the Revolutionary War battlefield at Yorktown.
Any designation as a national monument or park would come at a time when Fort Monroe is attracting renewed attention because of the critical role it played in shaping the course of the Civil War.
Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler's decision there to give asylum to runaway slaves as "contraband of war" marked the first step in transforming the conflict into a battle for black freedom. The strategically located waterfront fort also became an indispensable base of operations for the Union blockade and occupation of Southern ports.
Old Point Comfort is also the site where the first documented Africans in British America arrived in 1619.