To become a national park, or to not to become one

By Naomi Legros

The last army post from the Civil War that is still in use today is scheduled to be shut down by September 2011. As this date draws closer, there has been a strong public push to have Fort Monroe, a 565-acre National Historic Landmark recognized as a national park as well.

Built between 1819 and 1834 in Hampton, Virginia, Fort Monroe became a significant part of the Civil War and the end of slavery. The land where the fort sits has also played a role in historical events since pre-colonial times. Prior to the fort’s official status, other forts were built on the island, including one built in 1609 under the instruction of Captain John Smith.

Throughout the Civil War, it served as a point for Union lands and for naval expeditions. The contraband decision of 1861, created by General Benjamin Franklin Butler, stated that he would not return escaped slaves to their masters in the South. This landmark decision was one of the catalyst for the events leading up to the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Once that decision was made, slaves fled their master’s plantations to Fort Monroe (Butler’s Virginia headquarters) known as the “Freedom Fortress.” Upon arrival, the slaves were housed and were taught to read and write. Harriet Tubman nursed wounded soldiers at the site and after the war ended in 1865, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was held imprisoned on the island for two years.

The importance and impact that Fort Monroe has had on African American history has prompted the black community to urge President Barack Obama to add Fort Monroe to the National Park System by declaring it a national monument. This was addressed during the President’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative that would support local efforts to preserve and protect areas that hold significance to our country’s history and culture. The events that took place at the fort is a part of history that is usually left in the shadows; and with the final decision, millions of tourists who pass by the fort, or Virginia in general would be able to join the many rich historical experiences that Virginia has to offer.

The National Park Service announced that there will be two meetings on July 19th, 2011 at the Hampton Roads Convention Center from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. to discuss the possible addition to the National Park System. Hopes began to rise as Ken Salazar, the secretary of the interior toured the base and met with 150 supporters who expressed a strong desire to turn the landmark into a national park. He claimed that it “could become a great example of an urban national park, and it is clearly in line with Obama's great outdoors initiative”. The meeting on the 19th will allow citizens to express their thoughts in regards of making it a national park. With a little over two months before the fort is turned over to the state, a new priority has been to get President Obama to declare Fort Monroe as a national monument using powers granted to him by the Antiquties Act.

Over 300 million visitors go to national parks every year. Let’s hope that Fort Monroe will be another addition to America’s National Park System, and the 22nd addition to Virginia’s national parks.

If you’d like to voice your own opinions, you can send your comments to the NPS Planning, Environment and Public Comment website (PEPC) http://parkplanning.nps.gov/fortmonroe until 5 p.m. on July 26th, 2011.

 

Image- Bird's eye view of Fort Monroe. Source: National Park Service PEPC