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The Future of 'Freedom's Fortress'
By ADAM GOODHEART, New York Times August 18, 2011
There are few places in America where the full sweep of our nation's past - from tragedy to triumph - are more palpable and immediate than on this small, fishhook-shaped spit of land near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Fort Monroe, Va., stands where African-American slavery began - and also, in a sense, where it ended. It marks the birthplace of black America, and the place of its rebirth into freedom.
In 1619, the first shipload of captive Africans arrived at this spot, which was then an outpost of the Jamestown colony. By a remarkable coincidence, it is also where, in the spring and summer of 1861, slavery received its deathblow, as the first black fugitives of the Civil War began pouring into Union lines, a small trickle that soon became a mighty river. (I told this story in greater detail in an article in The New York Times Magazine in April.) Their bold escape, perhaps even more than Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation more than a year later, was responsible for slavery's extinction.
With such a history behind it, Fort Monroe might seem to deserve a place alongside Plymouth Rock and Gettysburg in the pantheon of America's historic places. Yet relatively few ordinary citizens have heard of it, much less visited. For more than four centuries, it has been in almost continuous use as a working military base guarding the harbor known as Hampton Roads. Army officers and their families live alongside the parade ground where the fugitives once camped; a children's swing set stands in the shadow of medieval-looking stone battlements. It feels like a place outside of time - more quiet backwater than national shrine.
Still, it is worth remembering that many of America's historic icons spent decades or centuries languishing in obscurity. The Liberty Bell was once slated to be sold for scrap metal, saved only because it proved not worth the cost of hauling it away. The bus on which Rosa Parks took her stand against segregation was left rusting in an Alabama field, used to store lumber and farm tools; it now sits at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.
Now Fort Monroe faces a new and uncertain chapter of its history - and perhaps a chance to take its rightful place among the touchstones of American history. Next month it will be deaccessioned by the Army under the terms of the federal Base Realignment and Closure Act of 2005. Its future beyond that point is in the hands of President Obama, who is deliberating whether to use his executive powers to declare the citadel a national monument, the first such act of his presidency.
This might not seem like the most propitious moment for the president to unilaterally create a new unit of the National Park Service, which has seen its budget slashed by nearly $500 million over the past several years. But the idea, which began as the lonely effort of a few local activists, including descendants of the fugitive slaves, is currently the subject of intensive discussions among federal, state and local officials. Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar visited Fort Monroe in late June, and last week Jon Jarvis, the director of the Park Service, told Politico that the site "has very high potential" as a national monument.
If the grassroots movement to add Monroe to the National Park System succeeds, it will in some ways echo the events of 150 years ago, when a few ordinary Americans took a stand that ended up moving the levers of federal power. On May 23, 1861, three enslaved Virginians named Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory and James Townsend fled from their master, a Confederate colonel who had put them to work building rebel fortifications, and sought protection at the Union-held citadel. When their owner asked for the return of his "property" under fugitive-slave laws, Union Gen. Benjamin F. Butler declared the three men "contraband of war," classifying them as captured goods being used for military purposes by the enemy and thus subject to legitimate seizure.
Within days, dozens and then hundreds more African Americans came for safe harbor within what they soon began calling "Freedom's Fortress," and Butler's decision was soon ratified as official policy by Congress and the Lincoln administration. Soon, these refugees, known as "contrabands," were contributing to the Union cause in myriad ways, sometimes even joining the federal troops in battle. Before the Emancipation Proclamation took effect a year and a half later, tens or even hundreds of thousands of fugitives had escaped bondage throughout the South, and even many conservative whites had come to accept that slavery's days were numbered.
Today there is little to mark Fort Monroe as the birthplace of African-American freedom. It has no memorial to General Butler or the contrabands, nor to the slaves who arrived in 1619, save for a couple of modest wayside markers. (It does contain a Jefferson Davis Memorial Park, dedicated in the 1950s by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which commemorates the rebel leader's imprisonment there after the war.) Yet the fort's historic structures are remarkably intact: the granite bastions and moat; the parade ground shaded by gnarled live-oaks; the officers' quarters where Lincoln stayed during an 1862 visit. The adjacent city of Hampton, Va., is also redolent with African-American history: a makeshift school established there for fugitive slaves became Hampton University, one of the nation's first historically black colleges.
Just a few years ago, according to Hampton's mayor, Molly Ward, some state and federal officials "laughed at the idea" that Fort Monroe could be a national park after its closure as a military base. The plan was for the facility to become a mixed-use development of residences, shops and offices. But the efforts of activists and local officials began gradually making headway, and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War has lent additional impetus. Virginia's congressional delegation and its Republican governor, Robert McDonnell, have endorsed turning 200 of the fort's 565 acres over to the Park Service, with the remainder open to development under strict controls, when the Army officially cedes ownership on September 15.
"Nobody's laughing at the idea now," Ward told me. "It's almost like the stars are aligned and things are falling into place." Last month, the Park Service held a public comment session at the local convention center; more than a thousand people attended and not one spoke against the national monument designation. The only dissent, Ward said, was over whether the 200-acre enclave would be sufficient.
It remains to be seen whether President Obama - despite the current budget woes - will use his authority to make the Fort Monroe national monument a reality, a power that he holds under the Antiquities Act of 1906. (President Bill Clinton used the act to designate no fewer than 19 national monuments; President George W. Bush created six.) Many supporters have suggested that this would be a fitting way to honor the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, which has received relatively little federal recognition.
As yet, Obama has paid no official visit to Fort Monroe. In July 2009, however, not long into his presidency, he and his family toured Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, a fortress where African slaves once awaited transportation across the Middle Passage to America - following in the footsteps of Clinton and Bush, who had paid similar visits to Senegal's Goree Island. The president spoke there of its evocative power as a place of both profound sadness and hope, a beacon of the courage that would "abolish slavery and ultimately win civil rights for all people."
Fort Monroe is America's own Cape Coast Castle or Goree Island. Indeed, it is more than that - for here liberty, as well as slavery, began. The weeks ahead may determine whether it will become a similar place of pilgrimage, much closer to home.