March 31, 2015

“Everyone Should Visit Fort Monroe”: Reflecting on the Future of a National Treasure

Sunrise over Fort Monroe. Credit: OkiGator, Flickr

Ten years ago I visited Fort Monroe with my colleague Free Harris, who served then as the National Trust’s director for diversity. The tour with Free, whose family is rooted in Hampton, was an eye-opener and my first step toward understanding what President Obama has called the fortress’s “storied history in the defense of our nation and the struggle for freedom.” Since then I’ve done my best to share Fort Monroe with my own family and to advocate effectively for this National Treasure.

The National Trust is now wrapping up our advocacy campaign for Fort Monroe. In the best tradition of our organization, we have contributed at key steps in the march toward preservation, beginning with the land-use planning triggered by the Army’s 2005 decision to shutter this Gibraltar of the Chesapeake; through President Obama’s creation of the Fort Monroe National Monument; and, finally, to the completion of the Fort Monroe Authority’s master plan to conserve the fortress’s splendid vistas, landscapes, and 180 historic structures.

Along the way, I’ve experienced some highs and a few lows:

  • Throughout the land-use planning process I was greatly encouraged by the public’s enthusiastic participation in the process to re-purpose Fort Monroe. It proved to be a grinding marathon, with an occasional wrong turn and eventual course corrections.
  • In November 2011, I was inspired by President Obama’s designation of the National Monument, which placed 325 acres of the 565-acre site under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. But I was particularly moved by the August 2011 letter of support to President Obama from the pastors of eight historic churches in the City of Hampton which share a deep connection to Fort Monroe and to the Civil War-era freedom seekers.
  • At times I was discouraged by the overwrought rhetoric used by a few activists who tried to refute re-development concepts by discrediting the land-use planners. Nevertheless, a constructive public debate has flourished about the future of Fort Monroe. I am hopeful that discourse will continue and innovation will be encouraged.

Fort Monroe. Credit: Patrick McKay

I have also come to believe four things about this significant place:

  1. Fort Monroe is an essential landmark of African-American history. Freedom’s Fortress commemorates the courage and resilience of individual Civil War-era freedom seekers and highlights the ongoing struggle for justice in our nation. That’s what is most important about Fort Monroe. One cannot understand the Civil War -- the most significant event in American history -- without knowing what happened at Fort Monroe, a chapter of American history which was relegated to the margins for too long.
  2. Fort Monroe is a case study in historic preservation planning. In 2005 Fort Monroe lost its purpose, a sad fate for any historic place. But thanks to good thinking by dedicated people, that threat largely has been resolved. Success would have eluded us, however, if it weren’t for the technical give-and-take of the Section 106 consultation pursuant to the National Historic Preservation Act -- and for the dedicated staff of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
  3. You can’t get enough of a good thing. Indeed, Virginia’s Governor Terry McAuliffe proposes to expand the National Monument by transferring 90 acres of the fort’s Wherry Quarter from the Commonwealth’s control to that of the National Park Service. The National Trust is inclined to support the expansion, and we are eager to learn the details of Governor McAuliffe’s proposal.
  4. Everyone should visit Fort Monroe. And, while you’re there, stop by nearby Hampton University to see the Emancipation Oak, an extraordinary, still-living witness to the first reading in the South of the Emancipation Proclamation, more than 152 years ago.

The historic fort is in good hands and has a bright future. That’s very good news, I believe, for my daughter and her friends of the iGeneration, denizens of a virtual world, who will need real, physical, public places like Fort Monroe where they are free to stand -- at the mouth of the mighty Chesapeake Bay -- to understand their own roles in making the United States a more just and humane nation.

Join us in protecting and restoring places where significant African American history happened.

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