Hardship, Perseverance, and Healing at Freedom’s Fortress
Terry E. Brown, the first African American superintendent to manage Fort Monroe National Monument, works in an office in Robert E. Lee’s former home. A stone’s throw away is the very place enslaved Africans first landed on the shores of English-occupied North America 400 years ago.
One might think his surroundings would prove to be a difficult workplace, but instead, Brown describes the drive to work as emotional, educational, and amazing. “When I drive across the bridge, I also wonder if my ancestors have arrived in this space. It just gives me goosebumps.”
Every day, he conscientiously takes up the mantle of “telling stories that America needs to know” in the name of protecting, preserving, and interpreting our country’s historical resources. He takes pride in his ability to facilitate honest conversations with visitors about difficult topics in front of “one of the great historic trees in American history.”
The Algernourne Oak tree has kept watch over this area for 500 years. When Brown leads tours, he ends at this witness tree to remind visitors of the vast history it has seen – of bondage, hardship, turmoil, perseverance, and reconciliation.
The Algernourne Oak was there with American Indians before the arrival of European immigrants. It saw the arrival of Captain John Smith and later, the landing of abducted Africans at Point Comfort. It went on to see enslaved people construct Fort Monroe, the largest stone fort in America, and the refuge it provided under the "Contraband Decision" as a Union stronghold during the Civil War, and finally the Emancipation Proclamation.
The gravity of telling the complex story of Freedom’s Fortress, the moniker given to Fort Monroe after Union Major General Benjamin F. Butler refuted the Fugitive Slave Act and allowed thousands of freedom seekers to claim asylum within its walls, is central to Brown’s vocation. “This is also the same place where Africans would eventually get their freedom. And 150 years after that, this is the very first site where the first Black president made his very first national monument.”
There is still healing and work to be done. Brown will orchestrate a nationwide bell-ringing event on August 25 to echo the chimes that announced the end of the Civil War to enslaved people. It will provide an opportunity for all people to reflect on the impact slavery had on the United States, the far-reaching consequences still felt today, and to honor the perseverance and contributions of African Americans in building this nation.
“Black people self-emancipated themselves. And the whole idea of freedom and … ‘We the People’ really starts when people [stepped] off those ships. Whether we know it or not, the whole concept, the whole idea of freedom and liberty begins right there,” said Brown.
Today, Fort Monroe stands at the beginning of a people’s forced introduction to North America and holds major cultural and historical significance for our collective history. “Fort Monroe is a place that you must visit. If you’re going to mention the Grand Canyon or the Statue of Liberty, you have to mention Fort Monroe,” said Brown.
To experience this convergence of timelines, visit Fort Monroe National Monument: a violent and tragic beginning, the echo of a long history of perseverance of the African American community, and a means of hope and progress for the future.