Event Spotlight

Virginia’s American Evolution Commemoration and the Fort Monroe Arc of Freedom


During the year of 1619, four significant events took place that would forever alter the course of Virginia and United States history:

     1) the meeting of the first representative legislative assembly in the New World at Jamestown;

     2) the arrival of the first recorded Africans to English occupied North America at Point    
         Comfort, modern-day Fort Monroe;

     3) the recruitment of English women to come to the colony at Jamestown; and

     4) the observance of the first Thanksgiving in North America held at Berkeley Plantation,
         located along the James River.

Across the Commonwealth of Virginia throughout 2019, each of these noteworthy events are being commemorated.  Visit the website of Virginia’s 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution, to learn more about the numerous events, exhibitions, and legacy projects that are ongoing throughout the state.  At Fort Monroe, the commemoration will focus on the arrival of the first Africans who landed at Point Comfort in August of 1619, and the Fort Monroe Arc of Freedom that evolved during the subsequent 400 years.

In 1619, the first Africans were brought to the English North American colonies as captives, along the shores of Point Comfort, located at modern-day Fort Monroe. This event represents the beginning of slavery in the future United States of America.  In 1861, amid the onset of the American Civil War, slavery began to unravel on the very same peninsula. Three enslaved men known as Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Shepard Mallory escaped the Confederate Army in Norfolk, Virginia, and bravely voyaged across the Hampton Roads harbor to the Union stronghold of Fort Monroe. The fort’s commander, Major General Benjamin Butler, did not return the men to slavery but instead classified them as contraband of war. 

By 1865, well over 10,000 formerly enslaved men, women, and children had sought refuge at the fort. As a result of Butler’s “Contraband Decision,” Fort Monroe earned the nickname “Freedom’s Fortress.” Inspired by these events, President Barack Obama proclaimed Fort Monroe a national monument on November 1, 2011and concluded that the site “marks both the beginning and end of slavery in our nation.”  Reflecting on this powerful statement, Fort Monroe Authority’s Casemate Museum has recognized that the complex history of the site can be succinctly expressed as the “Fort Monroe Arc of Freedom.” Together, the Casemate Museum and Fort Monroe National Monument interpret this history within the stone walls of the fort today. 

To commemorate and explore this narrative, the Fort Monroe National Monument of the National Park Service, in partnership with the Fort Monroe Authority of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and numerous other stakeholder groups, are hosting dozens of public events throughout the year. The events will provide diverse opportunities to learn more about, and engage with, the history of 1619.  An official commemorative program was developed to provide historical context and a chronological listing of all the events that are planned at Fort Monroe.  Paper copies of the program are available at the fort and an electronic version is available online. 

The centerpiece and legacy project of the 2019 Commemoration at the fort will be the unveiling of the Fort Monroe Visitor and Education Center.  Housed in the former 1910 U.S. Army Coast Artillery Library building, the Visitor and Education Center is slated to open in late August and will feature exhibits pertaining to the Fort Monroe Arc of Freedom.  The exhibits will allow visitors to explore the ramifications of the clash of American Indian, English, and African cultures that occurred in Virginia during the early 17th century and beyond. Visitors will also be introduced to newly-discovered primary sources pertaining to the construction of Fort Monroe.  Archival research has recently uncovered documentation from the 1820s that includes the first and last names of enslaved people that worked as brick makers and masons at the fort. Visitors will be able to view and interact with this primary source using touch-screen technology and high-resolution magnification. Additionally, the exhibits will explore the American Civil War and the momentous Contraband Decision and its legacies.  The Fort Monroe Visitor and Education Center will provide guests a central location to begin their fort experience and will become a gateway to the existing Casemate Museum. The building will also incorporate orientation and education rooms, an overview film, dedicated space for the Casemate Museum’s Archives and Special Collection Library, a rooftop observation area, and a bookstore/gift shop.

1619 was an important year in the history of Virginia and the United States. There are numerous opportunities to participate, learn, and commemorate the events and people of that year while reflecting how the history remains relevant today.  Fort Monroe is located in Hampton, Virginia, within the heart of the Hampton Roads region. In addition to historical, cultural, and educational opportunities, the 565-acre National Historic Landmark District includes amenities such as miles of public beaches, walking and biking trails, two fishing piers, a kayak launch and boat ramp with access to the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, and several dining options. The focal point of the site is the 63-acre masonry fort that was built in 1819 and is still surrounded by a tidal moat. Fort Monroe is the largest masonry fortification in the United States.  Located within the masonry walls of the fort, the Casemate Museum interprets the comprehensive history of the site and is open daily, 10:30 am to 4:30 pm.  Admission is free.

Consider a visit to Fort Monroe National Monument and the Casemate Museum sometime in the near future.  

Explore the following websites to discover opportunities to engage with the history of 1619:

Virginia’s 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution: https://www.americanevolution2019.com/

City of Hampton 2019 Commemorative Commission: https://hampton.gov/2460/2019-Commemorative-Commission

Fort Monroe National Monument: https://www.nps.gov/fomr/index.htm

Fort Monroe Authority and Casemate Museum: https://fortmonroe.org/visit/casemate-museum/



Fort Monroe National Monument

Fort Monroe National Monument was a military installation in Hampton, Virginia on the southern tip of the Virginia Peninsula. Within its 565 acres are 170 historic buildings and nearly 200 acres of natural resources on the Chesapeake Bay.

Robert Kelly

Robert Kelly is the President of the Fort Monroe Historical Society and serves as Vice-President of the American Friends of Lafayette. Robert and his wife reside on post within historic Fort Monroe in 1875 Officers’ Quarters. When not researching, writing, or lecturing, Robert enjoys boating the Intercoastal Waterway and visiting Third-System fortifications across the country.  

June 26, 2019

Main image: Park ranger leads a tour at First African Virginia Historical Highway Marker, National Park Service
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