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Steven T. Corneliussen column: Elevate Virginia's Historic Triangle

Steven T. Corneliussen column: Elevate Virginia's Historic Triangle

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Virginia’s Historic Triangle of Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown tells the world an American freedom story that doesn’t add up. Expanding the triangle by including Fort Monroe would make it add up.

That former Army post — a flat Gibraltar first fortified in 1609 and containing an 1834 stone citadel — commands the lower Chesapeake Bay and Hampton Roads harbor.

Last year, the mayors of Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach called for making it the “new fourth node in the elevation of Virginia’s Historic Triangle to its Historic Diamond.” They declared that events from slavery’s 1619 start and from its Civil War demise make Fort Monroe stand out in world history.

The Historic Triangle calls itself America’s birthplace. Its web page invokes the Declaration of Independence — the birth announcement for the world’s first nation claiming to be born of human-rights ideas. The page celebrates “liberty and independence.”

Yet national independence liberated no enslaved Americans. Notwithstanding inevitable protests of “political correctness” and “presentism” today, the newborn nation — enriched North and South by slavery — dishonored its own founding ideas.

But the enslaved honored those ideas with their feet. In the Civil War, more than half a million self-emancipating slavery escapees crossed Union lines seeking freedom. According to historian Eric Foner, they forced slavery’s fate onto the nation’s agenda.

Self-emancipators saw the war as a struggle for abolition “well before Lincoln did,” says Foner’s fellow Pulitzer Prize-holder James McPherson. The Emancipation Proclamation only confirmed their freedom.

McPherson says this “self-emancipation thesis” now dominates among historians, including at emancipation’s “foremost scholarly enterprise,” the University of Maryland’s Freedmen and Southern Society project. Scholars there see the self-emancipators as “the prime movers in securing their own liberty.”

An 1861 self-emancipation story arguably makes Fort Monroe America’s pre-eminent historic landscape for memory of the Civil War’s transformation into a freedom struggle. Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard public intellectual, attributes “the beginning of the end of slavery” to the brave, enterprising actions of three “heroes” of Fort Monroe: self-emancipators Frank Baker, Sheppard Mallory, and James Townsend.

They “helped elevate the Civil War’s meaning,” Gates wrote, when they “unofficially ignited” the self-emancipation movement. University of Richmond president emeritus Ed Ayers once called that ignition “the greatest moment in American history.” Adam Goodheart analyzed it in the New York Times feature “How Slavery Really Ended in America.”

Fort Monroe’s historic stature is growing. Ayers likened it to the Liberty Bell. Goodheart compares it to the Grand Canyon, Plymouth Rock, and Gettysburg. National Trust for Historic Preservation official Robert Nieweg once ranked it with Monticello and Mount Vernon.

But too often an old assumption still prevails: that enslaved people waited as passive victims for politicians to bestow freedom. That false assumption still lurks whenever Fort Monroe’s freedom story gets told with a glorifying spotlight on a Union general but no mention of Baker’s, Mallory’s, and Townsend’s names. That’s like mythologizing baseball executive Branch Rickey without even mentioning the central figure in baseball’s integration, Jackie Robinson.

Another problem is disrespect for the historic Fort Monroe landscape’s Chesapeake Bay spirit of place. Since 1960, almost all of the post has been a national historic landmark. Yet, when the Army retired Fort Monroe in 2011, development-minded politicians created a national monument (national park) along its bayfront, but left a huge gap for development to spill over toward the bay. Last year, those four area mayors joined others in calling for unifying this split national monument.

One historian has called abolition “the greatest landmark of willed moral progress in human history.’” Much of that free-willed greatness comes from the hundreds of thousands of self-emancipators symbolized by Baker, Mallory, and Townsend.

Unlike slavery-era stories told at Monticello or Williamsburg, this story isn’t about victims. It’s about assertive, risk-taking, history-changing Americans.

It’s a freedom story that America’s Historic Diamond should tell the world.

Steven T. Corneliussen recently retired as a media columnist for Physics Today Online. This is a version of his March 17, 2018, Virginia Forum presentation. Contact him at, or email for more information.


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