It is extremely rare to consider anything related to slavery or the Civil War a cause for celebration, but Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, is one of them. On Nov. 1, President Obama will use the powers granted to him under the Antiquities Act to designate the former Army base a national monument. The goal is to protect historic or endangered places from preying developers who might seek to use such sites for commercial purposes.
Fort Monroe is the site where slavery took root and then ended in 1861 when three escaped slaves sought refuge at Fort Monroe. They became “contraband of war” and were not returned to their owners, which provided a pathway to freedom for hundreds and then thousands of others who followed in their footsteps.
Built between 1819 and 1834, Fort Monroe has occupied a strategic coastal defensive position since the earliest days of the Virginia Colony. It was the place where Dutch traders first brought enslaved Africans in 1619. During the Civil War, the fort remained in Union possession and became a place for escaped slaves to find refuge. Fort Monroe was the site of Gen. Benjamin Butler’s “Contraband Decision” in 1861, which provided a pathway to freedom for thousands of enslaved people during the Civil War and served as a forerunner of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.
Fort Monroe will become the 22nd national park in Virginia and the 396th nationwide. The historic designation also will have a positive impact on the local economy and create nearly 3,000 jobs.
“Fort Monroe has played a part in some of the darkest and some of the most heroic moments in American history. But today isn’t just about preserving a national landmark — it’s about creating almost 3,000 jobs and adding millions of dollars a year to help grow the local economy. Steps like these won’t replace the bold action we need from Congress to get our economy moving and strengthen middle-class families, but they will make a difference,” Obama said in a statement released before the signing.
(Photo: Library of Congress)