400 years ago the first enslaved Africans arrived to English North America. That moment would set the trajectory of a nation.
The story begins in 1619 in western Africa, when a village is raided and the people that lived there are put on a ship and forced to go to the New World. Through piracy and storms, about twenty of them eventually land in Point Comfort, Virginia. Today the site is called Fort Monroe and it’s a National Monument.
Terry Brown is Superintendent of the National Monument at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. The story of the first enslaved Africans arriving here gives him goosebumps.
“That is one of the most historic moments in history because when they get off that ship, it’s a new world to them. Slavery wasn’t new to the colonists, but it’s a new world for those Africans,” Brown says.
“What happens is they come into this space and they’re sort of dispersed. And they find ways to survive. They adopt your language, they adopt your customs. They learn to buy property. They learn their civil rights. And they gain their freedom over a period of 400 years. That’s what happened to them.”
Those are his forebearers, and they’ve been his guiding light since he came to Fort Monroe to serve as the Park’s Superintendent.
In this role Brown has to contend with all details of the history here. The Fort was built in the 1800’s by enslaved labor. And the suite of offices, where he sits for this interview, has its own past.
“This room is the former home of Robert E Lee. It dates back to the early 1800’s... he was a young engineer here. He raised his first child in this building,” Brown says.
Yet today you wouldn’t know. The wall is covered with Brown’s choice of posters - an ode to Muhammad Ali, a map of Africa, a photo of segregated bathrooms.
“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 everyday I need that kind of protection,” Brown says. “I have to stay strong, because there’s an audience out there that needs me to tell this story.”
Stories that go beyond the arrival of the first enslaved Africans.
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.
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.”
“The next day a few people show up. By Monday close to 90 to 100 enslaved people come to the gate. We know, and this is in May, by the time we get to October it’s 10,000 plus people, here at the fort,” Brown says. “So outside this window where the parade ground is would have been 10,000 plus in contraband camps.
Contraband meaning people, enslaved African-Americans from the south who came to the Fort as refugees.
“Just imagine a big light over this Fort, and this is where they’re coming. And as a consequence they would later call this fort Freedom’s fortress,” tells Brown.
In 2011 President Barack Obama declared the site a National Monument, giving it federal protection. For Brown that action, by the nation’s first black president, brings things full circle.
“We’re honoring the journey and the legacy of Africans and African-Americans. And 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,” says Brown. “Because all that was taken away and the fact that we were able to emerge and survive is truly remarkable.”
Virginia’s Governor will speak Saturday at Fort Monroe during a commemoration of the First African Landing. Sunday there will be a Healing ceremony. Members of the public and children of all ages are invited to attend and participate.
The organizer, American Evolution, is a financial support of RADIO IQ.