The National Park Service held a town hall meeting on July 19th to determine whether the citizens of Hampton Roads, Virginia, would like the agency to take stewardship of an iconic American fort. I was fortunate to attend the town hall as Sierra Club’s Mission Outdoors Apprentice.
Besides being an old Army base and then scrapped under Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC), the old Civil War fort, Fort Monroe, has a larger story to tell. Fort Monroe was originally known by a different and notorious name, Old Point Comfort. The base has been around for about 380 years and was where some of the first ships bringing slaves from Africa to the Americas docked. The fort changed names and hands several times before becoming Fort Monroe. During the Civil War it remained in Union occupation even though it was in Confederate territory. In 1861 Major General Benjamin Butler made his famous “contraband” decision regarding escaped slaves. Three brave Africans escaped to Fort Monroe and the Confederate Government demanded them back. General Butler refused by claiming them as contraband. This decision opened the floodgates for those seeking sanctuary and over 500,000 former slaves turned Fort Monroe into a refuge. Many consider this to be the pivotal moment in the long struggle to end slavery.
Fort Monroe will soon be turned over to the Commonwealth of Virginia, who doesn’t want to maintain the historical landmark. Since it is already federal property, President Obama could use the Antiquities Act of 1906 to make it a national monument. Only two presidents have not used the Antiquities Act since Theodore Roosevelt made it law in 1906.
The citizens of Hampton Roads voiced their opinion for preservation. Representatives from Senator’s Warner and Senator Webb’s offices announced that the senators support protection and have sponsored bill S.1303, which would turn Fort Monroe into a national park. The mayor of Hampton Roads spoke about the base’s history and its importance to the area. Several grassroots organizations explained the historical and economic importance of the base. There were old Army Veterans there to explicate the nostalgia of the base and how it needs to be shared with the community. The most compelling and emotional stories came from the African-American speakers who voiced their reasons for why the old fort should become a national monument or park. The old fort symbolizes the African-American trials and tribulations in this country. The waiting game begins in whether our government will act and protect this special place in American history.
--by Sierra Club Mission Outdoors Apprentice, Mark Lemke