400th Anniversary of the “Twenty and Odd”

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

ADDITIONAL LINKS:

 

 

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.

Interview with Fort Monroe’s Terry Brown

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National Park Service’s Terry Brown

LINKS TO THE PODCAST:

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Freedom and Salvation was found at Fort Monroe for many former slaves.

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.

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Old Point Comfort Lighthouse at night

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.”

SOURCES:

  1. Brasher, Glenn David. The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (Civil War America). Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2012.
  2. Clancy, Paul. Hampton Roads Chronicles: History from the Birthplace of America. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2009.
  3. Cobb, Michael J. Fort Wool: Star-Spangled Banner Rising. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2009.
  4. Cobb, Michael J. and Holt, Wythe. Hampton (Images of America). Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2008.
  5. Dunaway, Wilma A. The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation (Studies in Modern Capitalism). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  6. Fairfax, Colita Nochols. Hampton, Virginia (Black America Series). Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2005.
  7. Gallivan, Martin D. The Powhatan Landscape: An Archaeological History of the Algonquian Chesapeake (Society and Ecology in Island and Coastal Archaeology). Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2016.
  8. Gould, William Benjamin. Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.
  9. Lippson, Alice Jane and Lippson, Robert. Life in the Chesapeake Bay. Baltimore, MD: John’s Hopkins, 2006.
  10. Newby-Alexander, Cassandra. An African American History of the Civil War in Hampton Roads. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2010.
  11. Quarstein, John V. The Civil War on the Virginia Peninsula. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 1997.
  12. Quarstein, John V. Old Point Comfort Resort:: Hospitality, Health and History on Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2009.
  13. Weaver, John R. A Legacy in Brick and Stone: American Coastal Defense Forts of the Third System, 1816-1867. Pictorial History Publishing, 2001.
  14. Weinert Jr., Richard P. and Arthur, Robert. Defender of the Chesapeake: The Story of Fort Monroe. White Mane Publishing, 1989.

ADDITIONAL LINKS:

  1. National Park Service: Fort Monroe
  2. Fort Monroe Authority
  3. Commemoration 2019
  4. Previous Episode – 1619: Women and Africans Arrive
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Couples enjoying the boardwalk outside of Fort Monroe’s walls

 

 

 

All photography used on this site is owned and copyrighted by the author. The featured image is of Fort Monroe as seen from the North Sallyport.

Music used for this episode – Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers,”Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” available on iTunes, and “Egmont Overture” by Ludwig von Beethoven, performed by the Chicago Symphony.

The Cainan Townsend Interview

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.

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Barbara Rose Johns Powell, the courageous 16 year old who sparked a movement

LINKS TO THE PODCAST:

 

SOURCES:

  1. Paterson, James T. Brown vs. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  2. Smith, Bob. They Closed Their Schools: Prince Edward County, VA 1951-1964. Farmville, VA: Robert Russa Moton Museum, 2008.
  3. Sullivan, Neil. Bound for Freedom. An Educator’s Adventures in Prince Edward County, Virginia.  Boston: Little Brown, 1965.
  4. R.R. Moton Museum – Farmville, Virginia.

COMMEMORATION 2019 LINKS:

  1. American Evolution 2019
  2. Facebook
  3. Instagram
  4. Twitter
  5. Youtube

 

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Cainan Townsend

 

 

 

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.