Two weeks ago on November 1st, President Barack Obama signed a proclamation designating Fort Monroe in Hampton, VA. a National monument. Fort Monroe is the site where slavery had it’s beginning and ending here in the U.S.
I learned about this historic event a week after it happened. Thanks to an October snowstorm, I had no electricity, phone, Internet or cable service for eight days. I got a real taste of what it must have been like for our pre-19th century ancestors – reading by candlelight, keeping logs on the fire, and our entire family of four sleeping in the same bed to stay warm! But news of our newest national monument made my time in the dark seem like a blip on the radar. It took 150 years to bring this historic Fort to national attention so I guess I”m keeping in step by acknowledging the occasion two weeks after it happened. Better late than never.
As important a piece of our American History Fort Monroe is, I’d never heard of it until earlier this year when I read an excerpt of Adam Goodheart’s book, “1861″ in the New York Times magazine. Goodheart wrote in detail of three slaves who came to the Fort seeking freedom during the Civil War and Union General Benjamin Butler’s decision to keep them there by distinguishing them as contraband of war, instead of returning them to their owners as the Fugitive Slave Act required. This opened the floodgates and thousands of slaves followed suit. Butler would later take over command of New Orleans. My second great-grandfather, Col. W.R. Stuart fought for the Confederates to protect New Orleans unsuccessfully. I wonder if he had a chance to see Butler?
As I read Goodheart’s account, I immediately started planning my pilgrimage to the Fort appropriately called Freedom’s Fortress. Even though I have yet to discover when my enslaved African ancestors arrived on American soil, or which port they passed through, Fort Monroe symbolizes their arrival here and their place in American history. It’s like Ellis Island and Plymouth Rock – a touchstone for my history.
As coincidence would have it, Goodheart heads the C.V. Starr Center for the American Experience at Washington College in Chestertown, MD. My Scottish American third great-grandfather, William R. Stuart graduated from there and went on to be a Maryland state senator. Some of his papers that describe his life as a merchant selling everything from wheat to slaves are archived at the college’s library. Tomorrow, I will speak to the college about my family’s history, from the senators to the slaves.
When Goodheart invited me, I googled the distance between Chestertown, Maryland (the site of Washington College) and Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. I wanted to see if I’d have enough time to fit in my pilgrimage to Fort Monroe after I spoke at Washington College. But it’s too far. But someday, I do hope to visit both back to back, both monuments to two facets of my history.