“Anyone who grew up in Hampton, Virginia, probably had some connection with Fort Monroe,” says G. Glenn Oder, executive director of the Fort Monroe Authority. “The high school proms and other dances were held at the Chamberlin Hotel, perhaps on the Roof Garden.” The hotel was also the site for other elegant events, including weddings. The Fourth of July concerts, featuring the U.S. Army Continental Artillery Band, complete with cannons fired during the 1812 Overture, was a very popular event. Almost every school child took a field trip to the Casemate Museum, walking through the series of vaulted chambers within the fort’s walls.
Oder is very excited about the 16,000-square-foot recently renovated, soon-to-be opened Visitor and Education Center. “Fort Monroe has been at the forefront of more than 400-plus years of history in America,” he says. “Also proposed is an African Landing Memorial at Point Comfort in honor of the first Africans brought here in 1619. We just received international recognition by UNESCO as a Site of Memory associated with the Slave Route Project. Fort Monroe is becoming a community leader in helping our region focus on this difficult past. We intend to grow into a site of national significance on this subject.”
“The designation of Fort Monroe as a UNESCO Site of Memory is a unique recognition given to sites significant in documenting and sharing the history of slavery and the slave trade and committed to healing and reconciliation,” says Eola Dance, interim superintendent, Fort Monroe National Monument, a unit of the National Park Service. “As we approach the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution, the UNESCO designation is so timely, since we are all reconciling our understanding of American ideals of ‘all men created equal,’” she adds. Fort Monroe joined 50 sites around the world and two sites in Virginia in telling the full history of slavery and engaging descendant communities.
As an ethnohistorian, Dance says, “I am committed to documentation and conservation, with emphasis on sharing the history and culture of the people who impacted the landscape and history at Fort Monroe. Much of that work has focused on engaging descendant communities of enslaved Africans and freedom seekers in telling untold stories. It also includes protecting the natural resources, cultural landscapes and rehabilitating historic buildings that convey the unique history of Point Comfort.”
Another part of the African American history is the “Contraband Decision.” In 1861 during the Civil War, thousands of enslaved men, women and children fled to Fort Monroe seeking their freedom. Major General Benjamin Butler declared three brave enslaved men — Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Shepard Mallory — “contraband of war” and provided refuge to them. A number of camps were set up near Union forces. There was also a “Contraband Hospital,” where Harriet Tubman served as a nurse and cook. This was a forerunner to President Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery in 1865. Fort Monroe became known as “Freedom’s Fortress.”
The fort was built from 1819 to 1834 and named for U.S. President James Monroe. Robert E. Lee, a West Point-trained engineer, was stationed at the fort to oversee construction. Fourteen U.S. presidents have visited Fort Monroe over the years. In September 2011, the fort was deactivated as a U.S. Army base, and in November of that year, Fort Monroe National Monument was established.
Fort Monroe is jointly managed with the National Park Service (NPS). “Former Superintendent Terry Brown is now leading the NPS in planning for the 250th Anniversary of the American Revolution. I am pleased to return to Fort Monroe as interim superintendent dedicated full time to management, preservation and programming in collaboration with Glenn,” Dance says. “Equally important is education, interpretation and visitor engagement,” she adds.
Amenities include beaches, boating, fishing, bicycling, walking the three-mile waterfront boardwalk and camping. There is a new 21-location self-guided walking tour brochure, and visitors may go online to learn more about the NPS Junior Ranger and B.A.R.K Ranger programs. More than 160 families live in historic housing units, and dozens of businesses, restaurants and organizations lease many of the former Army buildings.
Oder was born in Newport News. His degree from Virginia Tech was in landscape architecture and land planning. He has been in real estate and previously served in the Virginia House of Delegates for 10 years. “This is my dream job,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. His real delight is his seven grandchildren.
Dance grew up in Hampton. Her first name, Eola, is Nigerian and means honor or grace. Her history degree is from Southern University in Louisiana. The National Park Service recruited her after she had spent eight years at the Frederick Douglas National Historical Site. She was also affiliated with the Maggie Walker Historical Site in Richmond. Her travels have included Paris, London and St. Croix. She enjoys yoga, painting and nature walks with her three sons.
TO THE POINT:
Fort Monroe Authority
Address: Building 83, 20 Ingalls Rd., Fort Monroe, VA 23651
Contact: G. Glenn Oder, FASLA, executive director
Fort Monroe National Monument
Contact: Eola Lewis Dance, interim superintendent, Fort Monroe National Monument