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Museum eyed for Fort Monroe after closure
The Associated Press
HAMPTON, Va. — Scholars want to turn the heart of Fort Monroe into a museum about the U.S. military, the Confederacy and the end of slavery.
A group of professors, curators, archivists and a university president has been in Hampton discussing what to do with the fort when the Army departs in 2011.
The base is being closed to save money, leaving local, state and federal officials to figure out how to use the 570-acre property. The scholars favor putting a museum inside the base’s 63-acre stone fort.
Symposium participants included Edward L. Ayers, president of the University of Richmond and an American history scholar; Robert Francis Engs, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania; and Laranett Lee, founding curator of African-American history at the Virginia Historical Society.
The meeting was sponsored by the Fort Monroe Federal Area Development Authority, which is overseeing the post’s transfer from Army control. Engs was to present the recommendations to the authority on Friday.
Engs said most Americans don’t realize that slaves helped free themselves and that events at Fort Monroe set the stage for President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
Soon after the Civil War begin, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler declared that escaped slaves were “contraband of war” and did not have to be returned to their owners. That brought waves of slaves to the fort seeking freedom and protection.
"The importance of that is to show African-Americans were active in their own emancipation,” Engs said. “It wasn’t just given to them."
Because the fort remained under Union control, Hampton became a fertile ground for missionaries who helped freed slaves begin new lives. The area also has a rich history of involvement in the Underground Railroad.
"The way Civil War history has been taught in Virginia is to focus on the Confederate experience," said Ervin Jordan, archivist at the University of Virginia.
"This is one of the few places in Virginia where the Union aspect and the African-American aspect come into play,” Jordan said. “Three distinct cultures came together at Fort Monroe."