Statement on Fort Monroe and Significance in America’s Arc

On November 1, 2011, President Barack Obama used the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate Fort Monroe a national monument. Located in Hampton, Virginia, the Fort played a pivotal role in the history of slavery in the United States. Located partially on the site of Old Point Comfort, the Fort was built between 1819 and 1834, Fort Monroe occupied a strategic coastal defensive position since the earliest days of the Virginia Colony.

Old Point Comfort was where English privateers first brought the West Central Africans to Virginia.  Their arrival hearkened the beginnings of African slavery in America. During the Civil War, the Fort remained in Union possession and became a place of refuge for freedom seekers. After three men, who fled conscription by the Confederate Army, requested sanctuary at the Fort, the commanding officer, Major-General Benjamin Butler, issued an order in late May 1861 known as the “Contraband Decision.”  This order 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 and eventually the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery.

In declaring Fort Monroe a National Monument, President Barack Obama observed its importance by announcing, “Fort Monroe has played a part in some of the darkest and some of the most heroic moments in American history.”

Similarly, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said, “President Obama has ensured that this historic fort, a symbol of the long struggle for freedom for African Americans, will be preserved as a national park for generations to come.”

Both of these events (the arrival of West Central Africans beginning in 1619 and the demand for sanctuary at the start of the Civil War) gradually altered the very definition of citizenship and ownership.  These events serve as a reminder to the nation that the road to achieving the promises of the Declaration of Independence has been long and difficult.

It was at Old Point Comfort and Fort Monroe, located in Hampton, Virginia, that these two critical events would change the course of the Virginia colony and the legacy of the nation.