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"Freedom Fortress" Recognized For Significance in Enslaved Africans' Struggle

Overhead shot of fort
An aerial image of Fort Monroe. (Photo: Public Domain)

Fort Monroe was designated on Friday by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as a Site of Memory associated with the UNESCO Slave Route Project.

The project was launched in 1994 with the purpose of “breaking the silence” surrounding the slave trade and giving the world a better undertsanding of the legacy of slavery and its effects and consequences worldwide.

The Fort Monroe Visitor and Education Center and Casemate Museum now houses a new interpretive visitor center outside of a public memorial dedicated to all of those enslaved there.

Fort Monroe, known by some as the “Freedom Fortress,” was the site where the first enslaved Africans arrived in North America in 1619. During the Civil War, Union soldiers used the fortress as a safe haven for enslaved Africans, who would be considered “free” if they made it there.

Gov. Ralph Northam called Fort Monroe, “The most significant historic site related to slavery, African American history, and the struggle for freedom, not just in Virginia, but throught the Americas.”

He said that the complete story of 400 years of Virginia history has yet to be fully told.

“We seek historic justice as a means to tell a story that is more inclusive and more fair to our true history,” Northam said.

Direct descendants of enslaved Africans who arrived at the fort were in attendance along with several African American speakers. Among them was Dr. Rex Ellis, an instructor at Hampton University and the President of the National 400 Year Commission on African American History and Culture.

Ellis commended UNESCO for “highlighting global transformations and cultural interactions” due to slavery’s impact on world history, and “promoting a culture of peace, understanding and reconciliation.”

Ellis says the designation honors all those who died at the fortress and gave their lives in the name of freedom.

“Our collective presence here today honors their lives, work, resilience, and the significance of these Americans not just here at freedom’s fortress, but wherever the African American presence has shaped and contributed to the nation and the world,” Ellis said.