400 Years of African-American History

Kaylin PeacheyPark Partner Stories
Battery Church in the golden sunset light in front of green grass at Fort Monroe National Monument
— National Park Service

Until Fort Monroe closed its doors in September 2011, it served as the third oldest U.S. Army post in continuous service. At that time, the local community proudly watched its designation as Fort Monroe National Monument, officially recognizing the area’s centuries of historic significance. The park, located on Old Point Comfort, a peninsula of Virginia, has a long and complex history.

Centuries of Significance

Before the area was developed as a military base by the British in 1609 to protect the Jamestown Colony, the Kecoughtan chiefdom of the Powhatan fished and hunted on the land for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, due to conflicts between the American Indians and the English, the Powhatans all but disappeared from Old Point Comfort by 1610.

Since then, this area has become a space of struggle, contention, and refuge that has shaped the nation. It marks the beginnings of the dark chapters of slavery in the country, and later, a symbol of freedom as over 10,000 enslaved African-Americans sought refuge at Fort Monroe during the Civil War.

Beginning of Slavery in the American Colonies

A historic sepia photo of a group of African-American escaped slaves at Fort Monroe National Monument
National Park Service

“I would like to encourage people from all around the world to be a witness to the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans in English North America – where enslaved Africans stepped off an English privateer, beginning a 400-year odyssey for generations of descendants which shaped the course this nation. In the end, we’ll be judged as a nation by how we tell our story.” – Terry E. Brown, Fort Monroe National Monument Superintendent and 400 Years Commission Member

On August 25, 1619, an English privateer ship, the White Lion, brought the first “20 and odd” enslaved Africans to the continent. The captured Africans aboard that first ship were masters of their trades – skilled and knowledgeable farmers, blacksmiths, and tradesmen. Their expertise and innovations in food production and crop cultivation were understood to be valuable. This marked the start of 246 years of slavery that began in Great Britain’s North American colonies and continued through into the newly formed United States of America.

Within a hundred years of their arrival, enslaved Africans and their descendants would almost completely replace enslaved Europeans and Native Americans in America.

Refuge During the Civil War

When Virginia seceded from the Union in May of 1861, Union Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler, who had recently taken command of Fort Monroe, was confronted with a difficult decision. The day after Virginia’s secession, three enslaved men—Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Shepard Mallory—escaped and sought sanctuary at Fort Monroe.

According to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, any enslaved person caught must be returned to their “owner” regardless of where they were caught. Using his experience as a lawyer, Major General Butler was able to protect these men as confiscated “contraband” under the rules of war. This decision made Fort Monroe a space of hope and changed the fates of the thousands of African Americans seeking freedom.

400 Years Commission

A view through tall green grass onto the white lighthouse in front of the ocean at Fort Monroe National Monument
National Park Service

The 400 Years of African-American History Commission is composed of 14 congressionally appointed members mandated by federal law to “develop and carry out activities throughout the United States to commemorate the arrival of Africans.” The commission also commemorates the countless contributions “African-Americans have made since 1619, despite the debilitating effects of slavery and racial discrimination.”

In 2019 the Fort Monroe National Monument will host a myriad of events to lift up the story of Africans and African-Americans in our country.

From a Black cultural walking tour to musical performances by various types of artists, the park’s calendar is filled with unique ways to participate in the commemoration. Visitors will find no end of creative ways to learn about African-American culture and history and its importance in shaping our nation.

Continuing to Recognize Contributions

Park Superintendent Terry E. Brown and the rest of the commission worked closely with community organizations, activists, and historians to provide high quality, thoughtful programing throughout the commemorative year across the national parks. And 2019 is just a springboard for continuing to tell these stories at national parks and beyond.

“We are not looking to the year 2019 as a finishing event or a culmination of anything; but a beginning. We want to use this moment to create legacy, to build people and communities. We want to mend fences and tear down walls. We want to make the concept of “united” a real one and restore it back into the United States of America.”—Dr. Joseph Green, Jr. Chairman of the 400 Years Commission

Aerial view of the star-shaped Fort Monroe on the Old Point Comfort Virginia peninsula
National Park Service

In advance of the kick-off, the National Park Foundation provided the park with a grant to bring nearby fourth grade students to the park during the 2016-2017 school year. Students learned about the park’s history and its relation to slavery based on state curriculum. For many of them, this was their first time experiencing a national park.

Many units of the National Park System are associated with African-American history in significant ways. By continuing to interpret the history of slavery, national parks teach visitors about the disastrous impacts of this institution as well as the countless African-American contributions throughout the country’s history.

Visiting the Park

Beyond Fort Monroe National Monument’s special programming surrounding this year’s commemoration, visitors can tour the park and visit its partnering museum, the Casemate Museum. Free admission invites all to visit and learn more about the fort’s impactful history.

The fort is also located in the “historic diamond,” near other historic sites such as Colonial National Historical Park and Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. 

As the spot that witnessed the arrival of the first enslaved Africans, a moment that would forever change the history of our nation, Fort Monroe National Monument holds a special responsibility in telling this story.

The 2019 anniversary is a moment when this and all national parks and partner organizations can join together to share, examine, and learn from our American history and to respectfully honor the incredible contributions of Africans and African-Americans to the nation.

How will you #FindYourPark / #EncuentraTuParque to commemorate these stories and contributions?


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