Telling America's Story
By Stephanie K. Meeks | From Preservation | September/October 2011
In June, following a Preservation cover story about the Civil War contraband camp at Fort Monroe, it was my great pleasure to write to President Obama and ask him to designate the fort a national monument. We are hopeful he will act this year.
The National Trust has made such a request of a president only rarely, most recently in 2000 for President Lincoln's Cottage in Washington, D.C. Like that site, Fort Monroe has an important story to tell about our nation's history, a story made all the more significant by the fact that it has been largely overlooked in the national conversation surrounding the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
In 1861, three enslaved field hands from a farm near Hampton, Va., who had been put to work building an artillery battery for the Confederacy, escaped by boat to the Union encampment at Fort Monroe. The Union commander gave them refuge as "contraband" of war, and in so doing, heralded the beginning of the end of slavery in America. By war's end, approximately 500,000 enslaved African Americans had freed themselves at great risk and made vital contributions to the Union victory.
The events at Fort Monroe changed the course of history. Yet until now, little mention has been made of the contraband camps established there and near other military facilities. Few Americans know about the brave men, women, and children who secured their own liberty and hastened the issuing of the formal Emancipation Proclamation in the process.
As preservationists, we have the great honor of saving places such as Fort Monroe, weaving their stories into the tapestry of narratives that is our birthright as Americans. I have been thinking a lot lately about this tapestry, now that America is becoming a truly multi-ethnic nation, one with no majority ethnic group.
Census Bureau data from 2010 make clear that dramatic shifts in the racial and ethnic makeup of our child population are already underway, presaging a far more diverse future. These changes come with an increasing responsibility for all of us in the preservation movement to broaden the way we think about our work and the sites and stories we preserve as part of our cultural legacy.
We still have a long way to go before the National Register and our state and local historic registries—and indeed, our preservation organizations—reflect the demographics of our nation as a whole. Right now, for instance, just 3 percent of the National Register's roughly 86,000 listings represent diverse communities. The percentage on many state and local registries is not much higher.
The good news is that preservation organizations nationwide are embracing the challenge of increasing these numbers. The National Trust is using its national platform to identify and protect sites such as Fort Monroe. Together we are saving the places that tell the whole American story, in all its richness and diversity, and building a stronger, more relevant preservation movement in the process. Few efforts promise so great a return for our future.
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