On Tuesday President Obama called on his authority under the rarely evoked Antiquities Act, which lets presidents restrict the use of federally owned land, by designating America's newest national monument. Adding to the list of places that enjoy this protection, such as the Statue of Liberty and the Grand Canyon, Obama selected Fort Monroe — a former military base with pivotal ties to the history of U.S. slavery.
"Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, has played a remarkable role in the history of our nation," the president said during an Oval Office signing ceremony attended by a delegation including Rep. Bobby Scott, Sen. Mark Warner and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.
"It was the site of the first slave ships to land in the New World. But then in the Civil War, almost 250 years later, Fort Monroe also became a refuge for slaves that were escaping from the South, and helped to create the environment in which Abraham Lincoln was able to sign that document up there," he said, pointing to a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation hanging on his wall.
Specifically, Fort Monroe was the site of what's known as General Benjamin Butler's 1861 "Contraband Decision," which determined that thousands of men and women who reached Union lines after escaping from slavery would not be returned to bondage.
In modern times Fort Monroe has been a military base, but it closed its doors when the Army left the site in September. Obama's decision to proclaim it a national landmark came in response to the grassroots efforts of citizens and historical groups, who advocated with local politicians for six years to preserve and maintain the historic land.
"Typically when a military base closes, the state hires an executive director, a real estate agent and an office manager to divide up the property and sell it like an estate sale. Nobody wanted that to happen to Fort Monroe," Glenn Oder, director of the Fort Monroe Authority, told The Root. His organization, a combination of local and state leaders, established itself five years ago to manage and maintain the land.
"Up until about a year ago, all the comments from the federal government had been that there's no interest in Fort Monroe becoming a national park. But the citizens group Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park, with the support of national elected leaders and Governor McDonnell, would not take no for an answer. The fact that we are now a national monument will give the property the name recognition and stature that it deserves."
But not all of the community organizers are satisfied. After all, President Obama's proclamation only extended to 57 percent of the property.
"We didn't spend six years trying to defend the parts of Fort Monroe that nobody was going to ruin anyway," Steven Corneliussen, one of the co-founders of Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park, told The Root. Corneliussen, who is no longer affiliated with the group, says that the moat-surrounded fortress now owned by the National Park Service was never in danger of being overtaken by commercial redevelopment. With its construction starting in 1819, it has served as a strategic defensive position since the earliest day of the Virginia Colony.
It's the rest of the site's 570 acres, under the control of the Fort Monroe Authority for development, that concerns Corneliussen.
"The rest of the land is intrinsically historic," he said. "Imagine you're a 10-year-old girl, and it's 50 years from now. You're looking out towards the bay imagining what it had been like if you were in a family that took the brave decision of escaping enslavement to go to the Union's highly symbolic bastion in confederate Virginia. And what you're looking at isn't the oak trees, sand dunes and the natural surroundings that were there in 1961 but condos! Would you put condos on the hillside opposite Monticello? It's preposterous."
Oder insists that there are currently no plans to build condos. "We've been investigating opportunities for a STEAM academy — that's Science, Technology, Engineering and Applied Mathematics," he said. "We're looking for an education campus operation that will also have some influence with high-tech companies wanting to be here. You have to understand, this was the training and doctrine command for the Army so, in spite of its age, Fort Monroe has enormous capabilities for high-tech industry."
Furthermore, Oder says that the approximately 2.5 million square feet that the Fort Monroe Authority is tasked with developing will create an estimated 3,000 jobs.
Corneliussen says that he is not outrightly opposed to doing business on the property. "You can use the existing buildings to make money, and use that money to support the place," he said. "But you don't just do development for the sake of development. It's not just any Army base; it's a national treasure with international significance."
Corneliussen adds that when Obama first took office, he had high hopes about the chances of Fort Monroe being fully protected. "I thought, ‘Man, he could take the lead and really show that this place is,' " he said. "And he only went halfway."
But Oder is pleased, after years of disinterest from the federal government, that the president designated 57 percent of the site as a national park. "There are some historic markers on the property now that tell some of the story of Fort Monroe," he said. "But we believe that the story needs a bigger voice — and now it has one."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.