Fort Monroe: ‘Ellis Island’ for African-Americans

Generic photo of Fort Monroe sign

HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) – There is a very special place in Hampton Roads you can drive, yet possibly not realize it’s there. The site has been referred to as a hidden gem, a treasure trove of history waiting to be discovered.

Well, now that special place is being compared to New York’s Ellis Island, the Gateway to America for millions of European immigrants. This special place is Fort Monroe — located at the southern tip of Hampton.

Union Soldiers stationed at Fortress Monroe helped guard the entrance to Hampton Roads during the Civil War. In 1861, months after the start of the conflict, three enslaved men in the Norfolk area escaped and made their way to the Fort. The man in charge, General Benjamin Butler, let them in and declared them contraband of war, or Union Property. Their owners or the Confederate Army, could not touch them. The three were, in essence, “free.”

Once the word got out, within months, thousands of escaped slaves poured into Fort Monroe, which became known as “Freedom’s Fort” and even “Ellis Island for African-Americans.”

From 1892 to 1954, Ellis Island, in upper new New York Bay, was the gateway to freedom for millions of immigrants. They fled poverty and oppression for the chance to achieve the American dream of freedom and opportunity.

Noted historian, and author of the New York Times best seller “The Civil War Awakening,” Adam Goodheart,  says of Fort Monroe, “This is where African-American history reached two of its great turning points. It’s a place that might truly be called “The Ellis Island of African America.”

In a Skype interview with WAVY News 10’s Don Roberts, from his office at Washington College, Maryland, Goodheart said that slavery began in America when a ship carrying about 20 Africans arrived at Fort Monroe, then Fort Algernon, in 1619. Goodheart also said freedom for enslaved African-Americans began at that spot.

Goodheart explained that when the Civil War broke out, about four-million people were enslaved. A few months into the war, a pretty remarkable thing happened, here, that gave many of them hope for freedom.

“It really started with three very brave young men – Frank Baker, James Townsend and Shepard Mallory – who were enslaved men in the Hampton Roads area. They had been conscripted, forced into providing labor for the Confederate Army,” said Goodheart.

In May of 1861, “They took a row-boat and they rowed across from Sewells Point (Norfolk) to Fort Monroe, and they came to the Fort and presented themselves to the Union sentries and asked to be sheltered.”

Post commander, Major General Benjamin Butler, granted Baker, Townsend and Mallory asylum, declaring them “contraband of war.” They were basically considered “property” of the Union Army. Confederate troops and slave owners could not touch them. Shortly after the “Contraband decision” word spread like wildfire. Within months, thousands of escaped slaves descended upon Fort Monroe and many other Union bases that adopted the Contraband decision.

Retired Hampton University history professor Bill Wiggins says Fort Monroe was no “heaven” for the “contraband slaves.” The Union Army put them to work, as soldiers, field hands and laborers. They cooked and cleaned like they did while enslaved. And for some, Dr. Wiggins says conditions were very rough.

“We know that there were rapes that took place here, rations were very scarce, individuals were taken advantage of. That’s the other side of the story that I want to focus upon, but it ultimately was Freedom’s Fortress,” said Wiggins.

Pamela Holley of Portsmouth says her family traced her great-great grandfather, Robert Langley Brooks, to the Contraband Camp at Fort Monroe.

“He met his wife here; she attended the Butler school,” said Holley.

There is now hope that other African-American families, like that of Pamela Holley, will soon be able to trace more of their hidden family history to Fort Monroe.

Fort Monroe’s Casemate Museum Historian, Robert Kelly, notes that General Ben Butler was a lawyer who “collected every single scrap of paper. And within this collection of papers are actually interviews, transcribed interviews of when Butler and his subordinates are interviewing people, enslaved individuals coming through the lines. These papers include names.”

And those names, Kelly says, could lead to that treasure trove of history that many African-American families need as they try to do what Pam Holley did – dig up their family roots.

Philip Adderly, president of the Contraband Society of Hampton, says the group started 20 years ago under the leadership of local musical performer, Gerri Hollins.

Hollins traced her family’s history to the Contraband Camp at Fort Monroe. Adderly says Hollins often pointed out how, once freed, the Contrabands settled in Hampton and surrounding communities. The Contraband Society plans to hold events in May and August, in conjunction with Fort Monroe.

Fort Monroe National Park Superintendent Terry Brown says the Fort is also planning a new visitors center where the Contraband story will be told. Other activities and projects will share more light on the story of the Contrabands.

Meantime, visitors to the Fort can walk the ground where the Contrabands lived, and check out visual displays and exhibits now, at the Casemate Museum. Click here to plan your visit.