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Panel: Fort Monroe should become museum
The center of Fort Monroe should become a unique museum campus telling the story of the place where slavery began to die and freedom began to take hold, history scholars have recommended.
The recommendation, made to the group overseeing the Army post's future, came Friday after a two-day symposium at the Hampton History Museum. The symposium was the first of several being organized by the Fort Monroe Federal Area Development Authority as it figures out what to do with the 570-acre property on the Chesapeake Bay.
Monroe — home to the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, or TRADOC — is scheduled to close in 2011, part of the military's Base Realignment and Closure plan. An 18-member authority that includes residents, lawmakers, and historic-preservation and tourism experts has been meeting to find the best use for the history-rich post.
In September, the president of the Richmond-based Museum of the Confederacy proposed opening a branch of the museum at Fort Monroe. The plan presented Friday greatly expands on that: It calls for an innovative techno-savvy museum that would tell the Civil War's story not only from the viewpoint of slaves who found freedom behind the post's walls but from the perspectives of Union soldiers stationed there and of Southern citizens and troops.
During the war, Fort Monroe became refuge to as many as 10,000 escaped slaves seeking protection in the Union-controlled site. The influx later brought Northern missionaries and immigrants, who settled in and around Monroe to create schools and help freed slaves begin new lives.
Speaking on Friday on behalf of the 12 scholars who attended the symposium, Robert Francis Engs — a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has written books about black history in Hampton — said the moated fort and its surrounding area should be preserved as a national or state park.
A museum campus would be created inside the moated area. Although the scholars envision a campus that could tell tales of many periods in American history, the first museum should be about the Civil War and American freedom, Engs said.
The museum could join forces with TRADOC and the Museum of the Confederacy to develop exhibits, and it should incorporate the black community in planning and development, Engs said. There are likely invaluable things in basements and attics across Hampton that would need to be treated with respect, he said.
"The consensus was that Fort Monroe is, quite simply, a national treasure that needs to be preserved," said Engs, speaking of the scholars' recommendations.
The scholars' proposal, which also suggests that the existing Casemate Museum remain and be expanded, was met enthusiastically by members of the authority, as well as by other museum experts.
Charles H. Cureton, the Army's chief of museums and historic property, called the plan "an all-important step in the right direction" and a unique idea whose theme of freedom would appeal nationally and internationally.
"I feel we are out of the gate and on the right track," said Kanata Jackson of Hampton, a citizen member of the authority. "We're in the position of setting forth for the nation something we can be proud of."
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