Hidden History – A story of freedom for many, Fort Monroe

Black History Month

If you’re headed to some of the most popular beaches in the mid-Atlantic, chances are, you’ll encounter the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel. 

Thousands of drivers use that stretch of Interstate 64 every day to get to Hampton, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach.

Well, a stone’s throw from the bridge, you’ll find historic Fort Monroe, in Hampton.  

The former Army post played a major role in the civil war. But, it also served as the gateway to freedom for thousands of enslaved African Americans. 

As Don Roberts reports, at least one historian compares the fort to New York famed Ellis Island.

‘The’ Ellis Island, New York, was the gateway to freedom for millions of European immigrants.  They fled poverty and oppression for a chance to achieve the American dream.

Well, one noted historian says there was another ‘Ellis Island’ for African Americans.

Historian and Author of 1861 The Civil War Awakening, Adam Goodheart, says, “In 1619, a ship with about 20 African captives goes into the Chesapeake Bay, lands at Fort Monroe, which was then called Fort Algernon”.

Goodheart says, “It really started with three very brave young men – Frank Baker, James Townsend and Shepard Mallory who were enslaved men in the Hampton Roads area. They had been conscripted- forced into providing labor for the Confederate army.”

“They escaped,” Goodheart tells us, “and they came to the fort and presented themselves to the Union Sentries and asked to be sheltered.”

Shortly after Baker, Townsend, and Mallory made their way through those gates and were given asylum at Fort Monroe, the word spread like wildfire and, within months, hundreds of escaped slaves made their way to the fort and were also given asylum.  They were declared ‘contraband of war’.  The word continued to spread and shortly after that, thousands of escaped slaves found their way to Fort Monroe. 

Retired Hampton University History Professor Bill Wiggins says being declared ‘contraband’ meant they were still considered ‘property’ and they were put to work for the Union Army in the fields, wherever needed, until emancipation in 1863.

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