Easily the most revealing moment in my educational experience manifested in one of Dr. Natalie Robertson’s infamous lectures, when she issued a challenge I would never forget. In one of my first classes as a freshman history major at Hampton University, Dr. Robertson broke out in what almost seemed like a sermon, preaching about the historical significance of Fortress Monroe, why it was essential to us as Hampton students and what it meant in the larger spectrum of African American and American history.
I vividly recall her painting a vivid picture of runaway slaves walking up and down what I knew as Kecoughtan road, Settlers Landing and Queen Street in order to find solace, freedom, and a new life that awaited them upon arrival to the Fort. She wanted us to remember and honor their efforts, the efforts of leaders like Mary Peake, who took up the arduous yet meaningful work of teaching slave contraband, the elderly, the young and all in between that walked hundreds of miles just for the opportunity to be free and to receive an education. She challenged us not to forget them, that the most we could do to honor their legacy was to take full advantage of our present educational opportunities.
Yesterday, the nation’s first African American President took steps to ensure that Fortress Monroe will always be remembered when he signed a proclamation designating Ft. Monroe as a National Monument. President Obama spoke of the historical tradition and offered a few words on what this designation meant to the country and to the economy, offering, “Fort Monroe has played a part in some of the darkest and some of the most heroic moments in American history. But today isn’t just about preserving a national landmark- it’s about helping to create jobs and growing the local economy.”
The official press release added that analyst believe the Fort Monroe Reuse Plan will help in creating roughly 3,000 additional jobs. The release also reported that “the implementation of the Fort Monroe Reuse Plan-the centerpiece of which envisions the preservation of the majority of buildings located within the 570-acre National Historic Landmark District as well as significant landscapes and view sheds- will help create nearly 3,000 jobs in Virginia.”
President Obama was able to sign the proclamation through the Antiquities Act, an executive order that restricts the use of public land owned by the federal government. Coincidently, only fourteen presidents have used the Antiquities Act since Teddy Roosevelt initiated it back in 1906. President Obama is the first to utilize the act since former President Bill Clinton used the act to proclaim the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.
Many groups and organizations advocated for the designation of Fort Monroe as a national monument, including the Association for the Study and Life of African American History and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and many affiliated with Hampton University. Through their efforts Fort Monroe will now become the twenty-second national park in Virginia and the 396th in the nation.