Where it all began

Ed talks to Terry Brown, superintendent at Fort Monroe National Monument in Norfolk, Virginia. It’s a site that includes Old Point Comfort, where historians believe the first Africans set foot on British North America.


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Ed: Terry Brown has a big job: protecting one of the most historic sites in America. Terry is the superintendent at Fort Monroe National Monument in Norfolk, Virginia. It’s a site that includes old Point Comfort, where historians believe the first Africans set foot in British North America. If you ask Terry, Fort Monroe isn’t just historical, it’s also breathtaking.

Terry: Oh my. It’s beautiful. I mean, if you come through the main gates of Fort Monroe, it looks and feels like a military base and it’s fascinating. You have all these old military buildings. As you drive down the main road, there’s these beautiful trees, these crepe myrtles that hug you as you drive down the road. You see plenty of ships going by. It’s a beautiful scene. At times, when I walk around the fort I’m taken aback by the view. The view shed is amazing.

Ed: Terry stays busy at Fort Monroe giving tours to thousands of people who visit the site each year. Fortunately, I was able to catch up with him recently and ask what it was like to introduce so many people to such an important space. I started by asking Terry to tell me about the stories of Fort Monroe and what he tells visitors about the site’s significance.

Terry: I think it’s so easy to come to Point Comfort. It’s so beautiful. Like I said earlier, you can come to this fort, you can enjoy the… The military was here for 190 years, so you have these historic buildings. You have the beach. We have a light house that dates back to 1802. But when you scratch the surface and look at the history, American Indians were fishing and canoeing in the Chesapeake almost 15,000 years ago. You can make it a national monument just on that story alone. Then you have the early colonists arriving: Captain John Smith and Christopher Newport. The first Africans. We have the largest stone fort in America and it was built in part by enslaved people. It’s just a beautiful piece of resource that we have here.

Terry: And then in 1861, May 1861, we have this amazing story that sometimes gets pushed to the side because we’ve been focused on 1619, but in 1861 Virginia… right at the start of the war… Virginia succeeds from the Union. Not even a week or two after it leaves the Union, these three enslaved men arrive at the gates of Fort Monroe… Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Shepard Mallory… and they ask for asylum. Why this is so important is because about a week before they arrive we know that several enslaved people were returned to the Confederates. The Confederates were building fortifications across the waters. Then, in May 24th… sometime in that time frame… these three men show up at the gate, they ask for asylum, and General Butler, who had just arrived… was sort of a thorn in Lincoln’s side, he was just trying to find a place to put him, and he lands at Fort Monroe. He makes the decision to keep these gentlemen.

Terry: To make a long story short, before we know it, there are people showing up the next day. By Monday, almost 100 people were showing up. By October, we’re talking thousands, and eventually 10,000 plus enslaved people would make their way to Fort Monroe. Over time, they would call it Freedom’s Fortress. And you have all these contraband camps literally on the parade ground here at Point Comfort. It’s just an amazing story, and that will lead to many different policy changes and ultimately the Emancipation Proclamation.

Ed: Those are two powerful on the same, quite small, piece of territory. How do you bring those together, Terry? I know you have to tell those stories every day. How do you relate them?

Terry: I think the arc of history is important. It’s not like you come in I can show you some artifacts or the footprints of Africans being in this space. The artful part of being in this position, I have to artfully tell people that they were here and that they were relevant. And to convince people that this is important, especially when you don’t have too many things that you can show them. But what I try to convey to folks is that it’s not just an African American story, it’s really an American story, and we need to merge all these stories into one. Let’s not be afraid to have these conversations about slavery and racism.

Terry: I mean, my office is the former home of Robert E. Lee. I think he’s important to talk about. Jefferson Davis was imprisoned here. All of these stories are really complicated. I like to tell people Fort Monroe is truly America: it has classism, it has racism, it has… you name it, it’s all inside this little gun bowl that we have here. And top it off with a cherry, in 2011, former president Barack Obama made it a national monument, at least a portion of this fort.

Ed: And now you’re the superintendent of this national monument, as you say, embodies so much of American history. Is your job emotionally hard sometimes?

Terry: That’s a lovely question. Often times I’m not asked that question. Yes it is emotional at times. I mean, considering that when I did my DNA recently it takes me back to Cameroon… and it’s really fascinating to know I’m Cameroonian… so when I drive through the gates every day there are times I get really choked up because I know what happened in this space. It’s a huge responsibility. I want the community to be proud of what I’m doing. I know that slavery was harsh, it was painful, and it has a lot of mixed emotions in the theme itself.

Terry: I try to tell everybody that slavery screwed us all up. Because I’m so close to it, I struggle with it sometimes. But I know that as long as I’m in this uniform, and as long as I love this great country and I want it to be better… The Constitution doesn’t say that we’re a perfect union, it says, “In order to form a more perfect union,” and I take that to mean that we all need to participate. Sometimes that means that it brings in the ugly parts of our history, with the country being only 230 years old. You go to England or Africa and they have ashtrays older than our country. We’re literally just learning how to be a country, and I think we all just need to figure this thing out.

Ed: Terry Brown is superintendent at Fort Monroe National Monument in Norfolk, Virginia.

Ed: Terry and I have been working together to help commemorate the arrival of the first Africans in what becomes British North America, in a week or two at Fort Monroe. It’s been very interesting to see what this looks like up close: the anxiety, the struggle with nomenclature, the debates over where the first African people first arrived, old Point Comfort versus Jamestown. It’s interesting to see how complicated it is even in commemoration, I’m just wondering what it looks like at a little more distance.

Joanne: Part of what’s interesting about it is directly related to what you just said, Ed, which is when you don’t think very deeply the commemoration of anything seems very straightforward, right? Like, it’s something that publicly we’re going to announce and do something and say something official. But in this case, you don’t have to dig very far to get at all of these complexities about what is being commemorated, what kind of commemoration is appropriate, what kinds of beginnings and endings are we talking about, who are including? It’s on social media. There’s now, as of the last few days, a debate between historians about this very issue, about is it slavery before slavery institutionalized. Do we call it that or not call it that? What does that mean? Were these people enslaved or were they, as Cassandra Newbie Alexander says, un-free? Is that a better way of putting it?

Joanne: It’s amazing that it’s not very far beneath the surface historically speaking, which I suppose makes perfect sense because it’s not very far beneath the surface of the United States as a nation as a whole: the question of race and where it fits and how we grapple with it in America’s history.

Nathan: Right. It feels that the volume is going to really be raised on this particular commemoration because of that number… 400… and what that number means relative to the age of the nation itself, which really is a humbling thing to consider: that the institution is slavery, even as an ill-defined set of practices that is largely without a name in North America in terms of it being an institution, that that still precedes the establishment of the United States and therefore it connects directly to the debate as to whether or not slavery is part of the country’s DNA, to use one of the ways that this problem is framed.

Nathan: My sense, at least, is that a lot of what is creating concern or that raises apprehensions about what to do with this particular anniversary has to do with what it means about America and if we are, in fact, younger as a nation than slavery itself, then we have to acknowledge that there’s some kind of indebtedness to the country’s own greatness or prominence or complexities has in this institution.

Ed: I think that juxtaposition is made even clearer by the simultaneous celebration, as opposed to commemoration, of the birth of representative democracy in the same colony at the same time. That whole struggle between who are we really is played out in a kind of theater. What would you all think about that? Is there something lost by having these commemorations woven together? Or is it a useful reminder?

Nathan: I think it’s important to always weave together… to the extent that you can… people’s experiences across the color line, to use a great 20th century formulation. If you have people who were imagining freedom in the colony of Virginia, which is a very famous book that we all know and love… Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom… that Virginia becomes a really important birthplace for both the formalization of the slave institution and for these ideas about democracy coming from Jefferson and others. So you can’t, in some ways, disentangle not even just the ideas or the abstractions, but the geography of America’s founding from the slavery-democracy couplet.

Nathan: I guess there’s also something that’s embedded even more in what’s a contemporary debate now about the country and its identity, which is to say it’s important to mark the arrival of slavery as an institution in the British colonies, but if we recognize that there’s a Spanish… or at least an Iberian… version of slavery in the Americas almost a full century before we even get to what happens in Virginia in 1619, then that actually also changes what we are as a country: that we’re in fact a nation with both Spanish roots and with English roots. That also, I think, is a very touchy proposition for a lot of people.

Joanne: And you know, commemorations, obviously, they like firsts. Commemorations are about the first of whatever. But as you’re suggesting here, Nathan, what’s interesting and significant here is that really what’s more accurate and meaningful is that… take away the firsts and what ultimately becomes the United States is just part of this longer narrative, a much longer and more tangled story which really is, in a sense, the way history isn’t told very often and should be told more often.

Nathan: Right. And that’s the thing that I think for a lot of people makes the 1619 moment such a bittersweet one, which is to say that this, in many ways, is kind of an occurrence of maritime accident: that a ship gets raided, its cargo gets moved out of the normal traffic of Atlantic slavery at the time. Yet, from that moment, you then have this larger saga about the United States and its own centuries-long struggle with capitalism and with racism and with its own sense of democracy and identity. That, too, is a powerful thing, right? That this moment that easily could not have happened ends up becoming a starter for a whole host of generational struggles that frankly the country is still very much grappling with.

Nathan: I wonder if that too is a lesson to think about around this anniversary, which is simply to say that there are a lot of people who want to do hand ringing and gnashing their teeth about election cycles or what feel like aberrations in the normal sweep of a progressive nation, but I wonder if the lessons of 1619 are also about having a certain kind of perspective about what the unforeseen consequences can be of countries that are still trying to, as we are, figure it out and in some ways get the question of democracy right.

Ed: That’s going to do it for us today, but you can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode or ask us your questions about history. You’ll find us at backstoryradio.org, or send an email to backstory@virginia.edu. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter at BackStory Radio.

Joanne: Special thanks this week to the Johns Hopkins studios in Baltimore and to Amber Kennedy. BackStory is produced at Virginia Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the Johns Hopkins University, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this podcast do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment.

Speaker 13: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Ed Ayers is professor of the humanities and president emeritus of the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is professor of history and American studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is Hebert Baxter Adams associate professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for Virginia Humanities.

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1619 Lesson Set

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In 1619, the first Africans were brought against their will across the Atlantic Ocean to the Virginia colony. It marked the beginning of the institution of slavery in the Unites States. Over 400 years later, the United States is still grappling with the legacy of slavery and systemic racism. Generations of African Americans have been subject to untold cruelty. However, it is also true that much of America’s current prosperity can be traced back to the contributions of slaves.

This lesson, and the corresponding BackStory episode, provide a retrospective of the origins of the African slave trade in the U.S. The episode raises difficult questions about how we should commemorate the 400-year anniversary of this dark moment in American history. Using modern perspectives, students will form arguments on how to best approach the legacy of slavery in the United States.