This opinion piece appeared in the Sept. 23, 2018, Washington Post.

Headline in the online version:
"The Va. fort that launched self-emancipating black heroes deserves better"
Headline on the paper version:
"Fort Monroe: A sacred site divided"



The Va. fort that launched self-emancipating black heroes deserves better


Steven T. Corneliussen is the spokesman for the Save Fort Monroe Network.

Consider a strangely underrecognized challenge for national civic memory: Fort Monroe, Va., which the Army left in 2011.  

Early in the Civil War, it saw what historian Edward L. Ayers once called “the greatest moment in American history.” Harvard University’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. says that was when three black heroes — Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory and James Townsend — forced “the beginning of the end of slavery.”

By slipping away from Confederate forces they had been forced to assist and seeking sanctuary at the fort, Gates wrote, they “unofficially ignited” the self-emancipation movement that transformed the Civil War into a struggle for freedom. They were the first in a wave of slavery escapees who found safe harbor there, and their story must be remembered.

Fort Monroe is a flat Gibraltar of a sand spit containing a moated stone citadel. It looks across the lower Chesapeake Bay, over Hampton Roads Harbor and into four centuries of America’s past. 

More than a decade of underfunding-exacerbated dithering about its future has gone mostly unnoticed outside Tidewater. Now, though, the debate can yoke together national controversies about Civil War memory and National Park Service-maintained national monuments.

Much of Fort Monroe has been a national historic landmark since 1960. In 2011, overdevelopment-enthralled politicians contrived a limited, bizarrely bifurcated national monument on two parts of the newly retired post’s bayfront. Virginia’s Fort Monroe Authority plans to develop much of the land not included in the split national monument.

But last year, the mayors of Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk and Virginia Beach advocated “a unified national monument” that “would incorporate all or most of the area” highlighted in a map at, the Save Fort Monroe Network’s website. Sensible development would proceed, just not near the spirit-of-place-defining bayfront.

The mayors emphasized Fort Monroe’s “special place . . . in world history,” involving both the 1619 arrival of the first captive Africans and “the 1861 beginning of slavery’s demise.” They see Fort Monroe as “the new fourth node in the elevation of Virginia’s Historic Triangle” — Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown — “to its Historic Diamond.” 

Calls to unify the split national monument have also come from Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot newspaper, the Civil War Trust, the National Parks Conservation Association and, in 2014, Virginia’s then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). 

Now — belatedly, insufficiently, yet blessedly — Virginia politicians have at least offered the federal government a sliver of the omitted bayfront for token unification. But the National Park Service, citing the Interior Department to which it answers, is saying no thanks

President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke want substantial downsizing of other national monuments. But the fundamental problem isn’t Washington. It’s the original, enduring, parochial misframing of post-Army Fort Monroe as a local development plum with some history attached. 

That’s why the Fort Monroe Authority proclaims forthrightly the vision that Virginia’s leaders have intended all along: “to redevelop this historic property into a vibrant, mixed-use community.” 

The reality that any vision will be costly creates a convenient pretext for overdevelopment: public financial necessity. But with Fort Monroe increasingly and credibly ranked alongside the likes of the Liberty Bell and Gettysburg, that pretext boils down to a claim that the United States is so fourth-rate that it must inflict on this national treasure the equivalent of condos on Monticello’s hillsides.

Increasing recognition of Fort Monroe’s historical importance parallels increasing recognition of slavery-era black agency — assertive, enterprising black initiative. Historians such as Pulitzer Prize winner James M. McPherson illustrate why recognition matters. They see self-emancipators as having pressed transformation of the Civil War into a struggle to begin living up to principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence more than four score years earlier. 

The increasing recognition also parallels increasing disrespect for the old assumption that the enslaved fecklessly waited as passive victims for justice that politicians might eventually deign to bestow. A statue in Washington’s Lincoln Park depicts President Abraham Lincoln holding the Emancipation Proclamation while standing above a kneeling black man.

That pernicious assumption still lurks whenever Virginia officials, journalists and others — often without even naming Baker, Mallory and Townsend — lionize a Union general for Ayers’s “greatest moment.” That perverse imbalance in civic memory resembles telling the story of baseball’s integration by mythologizing major league executive Branch Rickey without mentioning Jackie Robinson.

Four years ago, then-Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust quoted fellow historian David Brion Davis, who, she wrote, “proclaims abolition to be ‘the greatest landmark of willed moral progress in human history.’ ” 

Baker, Mallory and Townsend symbolize the eventually more than 500,000 black self-emancipators who willed much of that progress. By their own brave agency, with no abolitionists whispering “Freedom” into their ears, one by one, they stood up in the best American tradition, crossed Union lines and sought freedom.

Baker, Mallory and Townsend made Fort Monroe into America’s preeminent historic landscape for civic memory of the self-emancipation movement — the big shift that pressed history toward actual completion of America’s founding as the first nation built on ideas.

We should be talking about Fort Monroe as a possible World Heritage site with an undivided Freedom’s Fortress National Park. But without another big shift, it’s going to remain mostly a financially hobbled local development project.