In 1619, a ship called the White Lion arrived in Hampton, Virginia carrying human cargo. They’d been captured from a Portuguese slave ship and were sold to plantations throughout the Tidewater region of the state.
There is some debate about whether these 20 or so people were indentured servants or not, but they certainly were brought against their will. Slavery had made its way to America.
In 1860, the American Civil War officially began as shots were fired from Fort Sumter and South Carolina succeeded. In the spring of the following year, Virginia did the same.
The group of slaves had entered the new America at what later became Fort Monroe, which was established around 1812 for its strategic coastal location.
Once the state became a part of the Confederate States of America, President Lincoln ordered the Union troops to fortify it against the surrounding “rebels.”
On May 27 of 1861, a group of three men bravely crossed the waters of Hampton Roads harbor in a small wooden ship from Confederate-occupied Norfolk to get to Union-occupied Fort Monroe.
Their names were Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Sheppard Mallory. They risked getting fired at from warring ships in the small hope that they’d be granted freedom if they reached the fort. To the same place their ancestors had arrived in shackles.
They came before Major General Benjamin Butler, who had just come to the position from Baltimore. When the slave owner found out that they had escaped, he demanded that his property be returned to him.
But Butler argued that because Virginia had succeeded, the Fugitive Slave Law did not apply. The slaves were being used to built fortifications at the base, so Butler called them contraband of war.
Some slaves decided to join the army’s Colored Troops after finding their freedom at Fort Monroe, or Freedom’s Fortress as it came to be known. By the fall of that year, camps were established for these freed slaves. And in 1865 at the war’s end, an estimated 10,000 people lived at the Grand Contraband Camp.
In 1863 after the Emancipation Proclamation was read at the Emancipation Oak in Hampton. A woman named Mary S. Peake was hired as a teacher for this community, pioneering education. These meetings led to the establishment of the Hampton Institute, now Hampton University. It’s one of the leading historically black colleges and universities.
This decision made by a Union general forever changed the lives of the people of Hampton. The descendants of the original slaves that arrived in the city are still residents of the area. They have family cemeteries dating back to the 1600s. A historic marker sits near the spot where the White Lion arrived four hundred years ago.
Fort Monroe itself was decommissioned as an active army base in 2011. Some of the historic buildings remain as residences but the majority of the others are for lease, standing vacant since the military’s departure. It’s like a ghost town and time capsule all at once.
Fort Monroe isn’t as well known as other points of entry like the Statue of Liberty. They weren’t welcomed as the tired, poor, or huddled masses from Europe. Instead, they were brought against their will to a faraway place where they didn’t know the language and were separated from their families.
It’s an important reminder of how Africans arrived in America. This Virginia landmark also signifies the impact that one person can have on the course of history.