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Federal Government Recognizes 400 Years of African-American History

In 1619, Virginia was home to the first Representative Legislative Assembly in the Americas. (Fort Monroe Authority)
In 1619, Virginia was home to the first Representative Legislative Assembly in the Americas. (Fort Monroe Authority)
February 26, 2018

HAMPTON, Va. — Fort Monroe, the first national monument dedicated by Former president Barack Obama, is one of many historic sites in Virginia that are re-examining the past and shedding new light on the role of African-Americans in American history.

American Evolution - Virginia's 2019 Commemoration - is set to highlight events that occurred in Virginia in 1619 that continue to influence America today. This includes the important contributions of African-Americans to building up Point Comfort in 1619, currently known as Fort Monroe.

Former President Barack Obama made the fort a national monument during his presidency. Terry Brown, the first African-American superintendent at Fort Monroe National Monument, said Obama's contribution to the monument makes the history even more exciting.

"When you add the fact that President Obama made this his very first national monument, and now we're a year and a half away from looking back at 400 years of all this history, it's really an amazing story,” Brown said.

The "400 Years of African-American History Commission Act" passed in early January. It ensures that Fort Monroe and other locations across the U.S. will commemorate the arrival of the first Africans in the area next year for the 400th anniversary.

Fort Monroe contains many historic landmarks, including the jail cell in which Confederate leader Jefferson Davis was held during the Civil War and the Norfolk Navy station just across from the structure. The Fort held more than 900 fleeing slaves who were seeking freedom in Union-controlled territory during the war.

Brown said those stories are just the beginning of the rich history of the fort.

"On top of that, if you scratch the surface, you can notice that there's a lot of history here. I mean, it's amazing,” he said. “We have the largest stone fort in the world right here that was built by enslaved people, so it's really an amazing place to visit."

Scholars are still trying to narrow down the exact time of the arrival of the first Africans to America, but it's believed that August 25, 2019, will mark the 400-year anniversary. The day before, Fort Monroe will open a visitor center to honor the events that took place in 1619.

UPDATED March 12, to include:
Last year the "mayors" of Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk and Virginia Beach declared that Fort Monroe's special place in history "comes from the roles it played in the 1619 start of slavery and the 1861 beginning of slavery's demise," according to Steven T. Corneliussen, a citizen advocate for Fort Monroe. He adds, "They urged that more of Fort Monroe be given full national monument status so that it can become what they called "the new fourth node in the elevation of Virginia's Historic Triangle to its Historic Diamond."

Trimmel Gomes, Public News Service - VA