Old Point Comfort, August 25, 1619. 400 years later location and a date that doesn’t initially conjure feelings of comfort. But it is the place where many gathered together in order to commemorate one of Virginia’s many major events for it was at Old Point Comfort that Englishmen, guilty of privateering, arrived with the infamously ambiguous “Twenty and Odd Negroes.”
I won’t retell the story, as I have covered these historical events in two episodes, which will be linked below. Instead, let me highlight some of the 400th Commemoration ceremony that took place on August 24th, 2019.
Entrance to Fort Monroe
The “Twenty and Odd” would have arrived at Fort Monroe’s great-grandfather, Fort Algernourne (aka Algernon), which was originally built in 1609.
Welcome sign on monitors outside of Fort Monroe’s grounds.
At one time slave traders plied the Chesapeake Bay. Today, the waterway known as Hampton Roads remains one of the world’s busiest ports of call as ships like these sail past Fort Monroe.
The Gazebo just outside of Fort Monroe.
Fort Monroe was commissioned in 1819 as a result of the War of 1812. It never saw battle, though it became a symbol of hope and salvation for nearby slaves 4 decades later.
Old Point Comfort Lighthouse overlooking tents at the 400th Commemoration Ceremony.
Museum, Educator, and Vendor tents readying themselves for the weekend’s events.
The Southern/Bay facing entrance into Fort Monroe with “Quareters Number 1” where President Lincoln planned an attack on nearby Norfolk in the background.
The American Flag overlooking Fort Monroe and Hampton Roads
Commemoration 2019 workers going over the day’s activities just after sunrise August 24, 2019
Fort Monroe was abuzz hours before the official ceremony began. Local police officers and volunteers steered traffic through the streets, while tour guides and National Park Service personnel polished last minute details in advance of the day’s soon-to-be-arriving spectators.
I.C. Norcom High School choir serenaded arriving attendees
Hampton Mayor Donnie Tuck welcomed guests to the 400th Commemoration
Some of the Commemoration’s distinguished guests on stage
Commemoration guests settling into place as Mayor Tuck opened the day’s festivities
Former Representative Jim Moran
Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates Kirkland Cox offering his opening remarks.
Onlookers under the tent at the 400th Commemoration Ceremony.
The US Air Force Color Guard
Hampton’s Ms. Chelsea Griffin sings the National Anthem.
Dr. Joseph Green, Pastor and Cofounder of the Antioch Assembly offering his thoughts on such a profound day.
The program unfolded with a series of short speeches by many of Virginia’s political leaders as well as officials from the rest of the country. The highlight of the day, however, had to be 11 year old Brycen Dildy’s speech that brought the crowd to its feet.
Former Governor and Senator Tim Kaine on stage
Former Governor Mark Warner
California Representative Karen Bass
Distinguished guests on stage for the 400th Commemoration Ceremony
Representative Bobby Scott
The Tent Crowd at the 400th Commemoration Ceremony
The Grounds Crowd at the 400th Commemoration Ceremony
Representative Elaine Luria
Governor Ralph Northam offers the keynote address.
L-R, Elaine Luria, Bobby Scott, Mark Warner, and Ralph Northam.
Jacquelyn E. Stone delivering poet Nikki Giovanni’s poem to the audience.
National Park Service Deputy Director Dan Smith
Fort Monroe NPS Superintendent Terry Brown being honored for his service
Larkspur Middle School’s Brycen Dildy brought the house to their feet.
Virginia State Representative and former Hampton Mayor Mamie Locke
CNN’s “Van” Jones
Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax delivered the final speech of the day.
Reverend Walter Barrett, Jr. delivering the benediction.
I.C. Norcom HS Choir performing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to close out the ceremony
To finish the day, I took a small side adventure of my own. First I visited nearby William Tucker Cemetery. The Cemetery is name for William Tucker, one of the first African’s to be born in Virginia, and it is the final resting place for many Tucker generations.
Sign marking the entrance to the William Tucker Cemetery in Hampton, Virginia
William Tucker Cemetery
William Tucker Cemetery
I ended the day on a poignantly solemn note in visiting one of Virginia’s great freedom symbols – Emancipation Oak at Hampton University. This beautiful, captivating tree witnessed Hampton’s Africans hearing the first reading of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
Officially no slaves were yet freed, because the famous Proclamation applied to slaves in the Confederate States, though the words certainly encouraged more enslaved blacks to make the almost 3 mile walk to nearby Fort Monroe, where they received asylum by Major General Benjamin Butler. Thus Virginia’s African story returned to her starting point as Africans once again became “Contraband of War” as they realistically were in 1619. This time, however, Old Point Comfort lived up to her name, and comfort in the midst of war came for those escaping slavery’s chains.
All photography used on this site is owned and copyrighted by the author unless otherwise noted. The featured image is of a recreated slave cabin at the 400th Commemoration of Virginia’s First Africans.
I love traveling all over Virginia. Finding off the beaten path locations, eating at local dives, learning poignant stories combine to make each trip memorable. Sometimes, however, I don’t have to travel to experience all that Virginia has to offer. Sometimes it’s in my back yard. That’s the case with Fort Monroe.
Fort Monroe’s story spans more than 400 years, even longer if one includes what we know of the native Kecoughtan tribe. The original Jamestown colonists first met the Kecoughtans in Spring 1607 before the colonists sailed up river to establish Jamestown. The colonists came back, established friendly relations, and over time built a series of lookout posts that endured through some hardest struggles that the colonists suffered.
That colonial outpost became the port of entry for one of America’s great peoples. In 1619 “20 and odd negroes” from Angola arrived signaling the beginning of a new era in Virginia and America’s history. That history hasn’t always been laudable as those original settlers built new lives and saw their progeny forced into slavery by as early as the 1640s. Those slaves and their stories have left a deep imprint not only on Virginia’s historical landscape, but on her physical makeup as well.
Point Comfort and her early fortifications developed into more permanent bastions in the early 19th century, largely aided by slave labor. After the British marauded the Chesapeake Bay region and burned Washington DC during the War of 1812, the sorely embarrassed government undertook a series of forts built to ensure such an invasion would never happen again. Fort Monroe was the keystone in that military wall.
The best military engineers of the day, including Robert E. Lee, descended upon Hampton to build the stone structure, as well as her sister fort known then as Fort Calhoun, but now known as Fort Wool, just off of Point Comfort’s coast.
These engineers were so successful that when the Civil War exploded onto history’s pages the Union maintained control of Fort Monroe, and never endured a serious threat to losing control of the strategic location.
Because the Union kept control they could use the fort as a starting point of major campaign thrusts toward Richmond. But the fort was also used for something else. Area slaves viewed Fort Monroe as potential salvation. Freedom.
On one May 1861 night three slaves tested their fate. They got into a skiff near Sewell’s Point, Norfolk, and rowed across the dangerous Hampton Roads waterway to reach Fort Monroe.
The Fort’s commanding officer, Benjamin Butler, had just been installed a day earlier, and now he had a decision to make. Butler was a lawyer from Massachusetts. He knew full well the law stating that runaway slaves were to be returned to their masters under the Fugitive Slave Law, but in a history changing decision, Butler decided to keep the runaway slaves as “contrabands of war.”
Word of Butler’s decision spread, and many more slaves poured into “Freedom’s Fortress” throughout the war.
After the Civil War ended, the region’s blacks largely remained. They started schools, notably built upon Mary Peake’s pioneering work, some of which was done in Fort Monroe before her 1862 death.
The American Missionary Association brought black and white leaders together in 1868 to formalize education by starting the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, today’s Hampton University. Their mission was to teach and train freed black slaves, which attracted attention far and wide, perhaps most famously, Booker T. Washington.
Because of new opportunities, America’s black history, beginning in 1619, could now be seen as beginning anew in the 1860s, and it still centered at Point Comfort. The shining monument to that storied history is Fort Monroe, “Freedom’s Fortress.”
1619 was the beginning of Black History in English North America. That history began here at Point Comfort.
Lee’s Quarters, as seen from Fort Monroe’s South Wall
Fort Monroe’s Southeastern wall and moat
Gun emplacements atop Fort Monroe
Quarter’s #1, where Lincoln stayed while visiting Fort Monroe
The “Lincoln” gun
Entrance to Fort Monroe’s Casemate Museum
Casemate Museum at Fort Monroe
Harriet Tubman honored at Fort Monroe
Edgar Allan Poe at Fort Monroe
Inside Fort Monroe’s Casemate Museum
Jefferson Davis Park
The Jefferson Davis Exhibit at Fort Monroe’s Casemate Museum
Jefferson Davis Jail Cell at Fort Monroe
Inside Jefferson Davis Jail Cell at Fort Monroe
Examples of the types of shells used at Fort Monroe
A recreated watering hole at Fort Monroe’s Casemate Museum
A cargo ship passes Fort Monroe and her outer defenses at Hampton Roads
A few months ago 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution and I discussed doing some work together, and when I saw Mr. Townsend’s name on the shortlist of potential interviews, I knew that I wanted to connect with him.
Cainan is the Education Director at the R.R. Moton Museum in Farmville, VA, which was once a segregated school during the period before desegregation. Cainan had personal connections to the historic events that took place there in 1951 in that he is the great-grandson of John Townsend, one of the students who followed 16 year old Barbara Johns out of the school in protest.
Once Cainan began showing me around the Museum, I knew that this interview was going to be spectacular, and it certainly was. His clear and thorough understanding of the 1951 protest, as well as the events which unfolded throughout Virginia and influenced the country are captivating. I trust you, reader, will agree after listening to this interview.
All photography used on this site is owned and copyrighted by the author unless otherwise noted. The featured image is of the Robert Russa Moton Museum located in Farmville, VA. All other images are from the exhibits located within the museum.
Music used for this episode – Gnossienne No. 2 by Erik Satie performed by the Empire Brass Quintet, available on iTunes.