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A Fort Built By Enslaved People Becomes a ‘Fortress of Freedom’

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Image courtesy of Fort Monroe

Overlooking the Chesapeake Bay at the southern tip of Hampton, Fort Monroe is a site whose history is uniquely intertwined with the history of slavery and freedom in the United States.

It was on this site, then-known as Point Comfort, that enslaved Africans first arrived in British colonial Virginia in 1619 - 200 years before the fort was built.

Tesha Vincent, the visitor engagement manager with the Education and Interpretation Team at Fort Monroe, reviewed the five-century history of the site recently during a virtual presentation of Virginia Treasures sponsored by AARP Virginia. The title of her presentation was “Leased for Freedom: Constructing Unknown Hope.” 

The Africans who arrived in 1619 where from present-day Angola, brought to Virginia on British privateers. Once they arrived, “laws were passed to limit the Africans’ access to freedom. These were swift in passing and they took place between 1640 and 1705 to solidify indentured servitude to chattel slavery,” Vincent said.

Fort Monroe, named in honor of President James Monroe of Virginia, was a response to the War of 1812, during which British troops sailed up the James River - past Hampton and burning Richmond.  Although smaller forts had existed there, the government decided that a major fort was needed on the site then known as Old Point Comfort. Construction began in 1819.

Records kept by the federal government during the fort’s construction show that slave owners were allowed to lease enslaved people - some as young as 4 years old - to do the work. The demanding construction included making 10 million bricks by hand, hoisting the bricks, and harvesting the granite used on the walls.

Vincent said the records are undergoing continual study to uncover the story of enslaved people in the Hampton Roads area. This study will add to the understanding of slavery in America.

The enslaved people working on Fort Monroe had no idea that “they were constructing a refuge of hope for other enslaved individuals,” Vincent said. That would occur during the Civil War.

On May 23, 1861, Virginia joined the confederacy with Richmond as the capital. On that day or the next, the records are imprecise, three enslaved people - Frank Baker, Sheppard Mallory and James Townsend - saw an opportunity for freedom.

The three men ran to the front gate of Fort Monroe, where they were taken and held for a trial. Major Gen. Benjamin Butler, an attorney who Vincent said aspired to become president of the United States, oversaw the trial.

Representatives for the owner of the men appealed to Butler, asking that the men be returned under the Fugitive Slave Act. But Butler told the representatives that because Virginia had seceded from the Union, the state was considered a foreign country, and federal law did not apply in that country.

Butler declared the three men to be contraband of war. This became the contraband decision, which meant that the individuals were considered contraband of war (captured from the enemy) and, therefore, free.

As a result of that decision, more than 10,000 enslaved people - men, women and children - were inspired to come to the fort. Vincent noted that some of those who fled to the fort might have been involved in its construction, which was finished by 1834, adding that Fort Monroe, built on the site where Africans were first enslaved in British colonial America and intended as a fortress from outside enemies, had become “a fortress of hope and freedom.”

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