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Museum to tell interwined stories
The Virginian-Pilot-January 4, 2008-Museum telling intertwined stories of the U.S. military, the Confederacy and the end of slavery
By Kate Wiltrout
A dozen scholars will strongly recommend today that the heart of Fort Monroe become an innovative museum telling the intertwined stories of the U.S. military, the Confederacy and the end of slavery.
Twelve professors, curators, archivists and a university president have spent two days in Hampton discussing how officials and residents should seize the opportunity presented by the Army's departure from the fort in 2011.
The base, home to the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, is being closed to save money - leaving local, state and federal officials to figure out how to use the 570-acre property that includes a marina, a moated stone fort, and sweeping views of the Chesapeake Bay.
The scholars favor locating the museum somewhere inside the 63-acre stone fort.
Symposium participants included Edward L. Ayers, president of the University of Richmond and a scholar of American history; Robert Francis Engs, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania; and Lauranett 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 will present the group's recommendations today at the authority's meeting at 1 p.m. at the Bay Breeze Community Center on Fort Monroe. The meeting is open to the public.
Engs, who has written two books about black history in Hampton, said most Americans don't realize that slaves helped free themselves. President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation didn't magically bestow them with liberty, he said - what happened at Fort Monroe helped bring about Lincoln's decree.
Soon after the Civil War began, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler declared that escaped slaves were "contraband of war" and did not have to be returned to their owners - a decision that brought waves of slaves to the fort seeking protection, and that set the stage for Lincoln's proclamation in 1863.
"The importance of that is to show African Americans were active in their own emancipation," Engs said. "It wasn't just given to them."
Other scholars, including Cassandra Newby-Alexander from Norfolk State, emphasized that because the fort remained under Union control, Hampton became a fertile ground for Northern missionaries who helped freed slaves begin new lives. The area also has a rich history of involvement in the Underground Railroad, she said.
Those kinds of stories are waiting to be told, said Professor Ervin Jordan, a Norfolk native and archivist at the University of Virginia.
"The way Civil War history has been taught in Virginia is to focus on the Confederate experience," Jordan said after the session. "This is one of the few places in Virginia where the Union aspect and the African American aspect come into play. Three distinct cultures came together at Fort Monroe."
Professor Carol Sheriff shared similar thoughts, saying that Fort Monroe was important during the Civil War, militarily and for civilians.
It's not a battle site where thousands died - it's a place where lofty ideas about liberty became reality for a segment of American society.
Sheriff suggested that in addition to housing a museum, some of Fort Monroe's buildings be turned into field schools for university programs in archaeology and architecture. She also proposed a summer history camp for youths.
Many of the big decisions about Fort Monroe's future are yet to be made. But Conover Hunt, interim executive director of the development authority, said it's important that officials begin determining smaller pieces in the meantime.
Hunt said the authority may sponsor other conferences in coming years, but inquiries from both the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond and the Casemate Museum at Fort Monroe made it clear that there is strong interest in the fort's potential to be a place of education and interpretation.
Of the scholars' conclusions, Hunt said, "They're challenging us to tell it as a seamless story, under one roof. And the story is going to be about freedom."