BLACK VOICES

President Obama Designates Fort Monroe A National Monument, Historic For Role In Slavery

President Barack Obama signed a proclamation this morning designating Fort Monroe a national monument. The recently decommissioned Army fort in Virginia played a central role in the Civil War and the nation's slave trade.

It was there, in the summer of 1619, on a swath of land surrounded by a moat in Virginia's Tidewater region, that Dutch traders brought the first enslaved Africans to the fledgling colony. Later, during the Civil War, the fort was controlled by the Union and became a haven and refuge for escaped slaves.

"This is one of the most important and powerful historic places in America, the spot where slavery began and also, two and a half centuries later, received its deathblow," Adam Goodheart, author of "1861: The Civil War Awakening," said to The Huffington Post. "It is the Plymouth Rock of African-American culture. I am thrilled it will be preserved and honored."

Goodheart joined the president and others in the Oval Office for the official signing of the order.

The designation marks the president's first use of his authority under the Antiquities Act, first used by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 to establish America's first national monument, Devil's Tower in Wyoming.

The president's designation was about more than just protecting the fort and the land upon which it sits. According to the White House, continued preservation efforts could bring as many as 3,000 jobs to the region.

"Fort Monroe has played a part in some of the darkest and some of the most heroic moments in American history," President Obama said in a statement. "But today isn't just about preserving a national landmark -- it's about helping to create jobs and grow the local economy. Steps like these won't replace the bold action we need from Congress to get our economy moving and strengthen middle-class families, but they will make a difference."

National parks are responsible for $13.3 billion of local, private-sector economic activity nationwide, supporting 267,000 private-sector jobs, according to a statement released by the White House. There are currently 21 national park units located in Virginia; Fort Monroe would be the 22nd in the state and the 396th nationwide. The statement also said a 2009 study by the National Parks and Conservation Association found that each federal dollar invested in national parks generates at least four dollars of economic value to the public.

Authors and historians have cited Fort Monroe as not only where the earliest slaves arrived, but as having also played a role in the ending of the institution. The fort was also where Confederate President Jefferson Davis was imprisoned after the Civil War.

In an article in the New York Times published earlier this year, entitled "How Slavery Really Ended In America," Goodheart wrote that on May 23, 1861, little more than a month into the Civil War, "three young black men rowed across the James River in Virginia and claimed asylum in a Union-held citadel, Fort Monroe, Va., a fishhook-shaped spit of land near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay."

And in doing so, "not amid the thunder of guns and the clash of fleets, but stealthily, under cover of darkness, in a stolen boat," pushed their way into history and to freedom. Army commanders at the fort used the information given to them by the three men, who had been working at nearby Confederate encampment, to their advantage.

That same year, General Benjamin Butler, the commanding officer at Fort Monroe, signed the "Contraband Decision," which provided a pathway to freedom for thousands of enslaved people during the Civil War and served as a forerunner to President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.