Fort Monroe’s role as 'Freedom’s Fortress' remembered ahead of Juneteenth

First contrabands of war at Fort Monroe
Posted at 11:44 AM, Jun 17, 2022

HAMPTON, Va. – America’s grim chapter of slavery began in 1619 in Hampton, where more than 20 enslaved Africans were traded to settlers in exchange for supplies.

“They were taken, kidnapped and stolen for profit,” said Tesha Vincent, a visitor engagement manager at the Fort Monroe Visitor and Education Center. “I can only imagine the fear that was going through their minds as they were being walked on to shore.”

The same shore and surrounding land would become Fort Monroe, a military installation that remained under the Union army’s control when Virginia seceded and joined the Confederacy in 1861. In the spring of that year, three enslaved men in Hampton Roads – Frank Baker, James Townsend and Shephard Mallory – escaped their slave owner’s control and made the dangerous journey to Fort Monroe for a chance at freedom.

“You can imagine the trepidation that they’re feeling,” Vincent said. “[They must have thought] 'If I could just get to Fort Monroe, then I can have my freedom.'"

At the end of their perilous journey to Fort Monroe, they faced Union General Benjamin Butler, who allowed the men to stay as contraband of war.

While Butler’s decision was a political move to cripple the Confederacy by not returning enslaved people, it signaled to others enduring slavery that Fort Monroe was Freedom’s Fortress.

“The idea of freedom, just the fact that they can get close enough that they can even attempt to touch it, was enough for them to make this journey,” Vincent said.

Thousands of enslaved people faced peril for the possibility of freedom at Fort Monroe. They built contraband camps near its borders. By 1863, President Lincoln created the Bureau of Colored Troops, allowing contrabands of war to enlist in the Union army.

On June 19, 1865 – or Juneteenth as it is known today – enslaved people in Galveston, Texas were the last to learn of their freedom months after the end of the Civil War.

“[Slavery] was a horrific, very bleak, dark chapter in history,” Vincent said. “But they survived.”

Fort Monroe offers self-guided walking tours and an interactive account of the site’s history at the Fort Monroe Visitor and Education Center.

To mark Juneteenth, the Fort Monroe Theater is hosting the “Wave of Freedom with Juneteenth Jazz Concert” on Saturday, June 18 at 6 p.m. Admission is free.

On Sunday, June 19, Fort Monroe will be part of a virtual program hosted by the 400 Year African American History Commission at 3 p.m.

You can find a list of more Juneteenth celebrations across Hampton Roads here.