Fort Monroe in Virginia is the site where the first enslaved Africans arrived in English North America in 1619. Back then it was called Point Comfort. Commemoration events will be held this weekend.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In 1619, 400 years ago, the first enslaved Africans arrived in English North America. Taken from their West African village, about 20 eventually landed in Point Comfort, Va. Today, that landing site is called Fort Monroe, and it’s a national monument. Before commemoration events this weekend, Mallory Noe-Payne with member station WVTF in Richmond, Va. spent some time with the fort’s director.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)
TERRY BROWN: That is one of the most historic moments in history because when they get off that ship, you know, this is a new world to them.
MALLORY NOE-PAYNE, BYLINE: This story gives Terry Brown goosebumps. He’s Fort Monroe’s supervisor and national park ranger.
BROWN: Slavery wasn’t new to the colonies, but it’s a new world for those Africans.
NOE-PAYNE: Those are his forefathers, and they’ve been Brown’s guiding light since he came to Fort Monroe to serve as the park’s superintendent three years ago. In this role, he has to contend with all details of the history here. The fort was built in the 1800s by enslaved labor. And the suite of offices, where we sit now, has its own past.
BROWN: Well, this room is the former home of Robert E. Lee. When he was young, he was a young engineer here. He raised his first child in this building.
NOE-PAYNE: And here we are. I mean, the first thing I noticed when I walked into this space is your posters. You got Muhammad Ali up on the wall. There’s a map of Africa. I presume you’re the one who chose…
NOE-PAYNE: …What’s up.
BROWN: When I’m in this position, I never forget that I stand on the shoulders of a lot of women and men. And to walk into this home every day, I need that kind of protection. I have to stay strong because there’s an audience out there that needs me to tell this story.
NOE-PAYNE: During the Civil War, the fort was controlled by the North, an island of Union territory in the newly seceded Virginia. Three enslaved men escaped to the fort, rowing a small boat through the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)
NOE-PAYNE: Union General Benjamin Butler took them in. Declaring the men contraband, he seized them from the enemy during a time of war. It would become known as the contraband decision.
BROWN: The next day, a few people show up. By Monday, close to 90 to 100 enslaved people come to the gate. By the time we get to October, it’s 10,000-plus people here at the fort. So outside this window would have been 10,000-plus in contraband camps.
NOE-PAYNE: Contraband camps meaning people, humans from the South who were coming here because it was a safe space.
BROWN: Absolutely. So just imagine a big light over this fort in, and this is where they’re coming. And as a consequence, they would later call this fort Freedom’s Fortress. It’s so easy to focus on just the slavery part, but I’m more interested in honoring and really celebrating their perseverance and their strength and their values and their beauty – you know? – because all that was taken away. And the fact that we were able to emerge and survive is truly remarkable.
NOE-PAYNE: This weekend, that history will be honored at Fort Monroe. For NPR News, I’m Mallory Noe-Payne in Hampton, Va.
(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE’S “AFTER THOUGHTS”)
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