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On the Shore at Fort Monroe

If you’re a child of the 80’s, when someone sends you on a mission to find a pet cemetery, it’s probably best to walk the other way. Ending up in a Steven King sequel was never part of the One Hundred Shores mission. Yet somehow, here I was climbing the hillside rampart at Fort Monroe… in search of Fido’s gravestone. As luck would have it, we found a memorial for a ghost who can't seem to fade away.

First though a little background. Once dubbed the Gibraltar of the Chesapeake, Fort Monroe was one of the oldest military installations in the country. It was closed as an active duty military base in 2011, and is now under the direction of the National Park Service. It has a surprisingly charming, quiet neighborhood sort of feel to it. You can freely stroll the streets both inside and outside the fort without much concern for traffic.

Freely strolling the street 400 years ago was a different story though. In 1619, on this shoreline then known as Point Comfort, an English privateer called the White Lion came to shore. On board were “20 and odd” men and women from West Africa. First stolen from Africa by Spanish slavers, then stolen from those traders by the crew of the White Lion, these “20 and odd” souls were traded for “goods and supplies”, and marked the beginning of the slave trade in North America. On board were two two slaves who would be from then on known as Antony and Isabella, and from them was the first born African American- William Tucker.

In 2019, to mark the 400th anniversary of their arrival, the National Park Service established a Nationwide bell-ringing ceremony centered around Fort Monroe as part of an annual Day of Healing. Now an annual tradition, a bell at Fort Monroe rings for 4 minutes every August. The bell rings fo one minute in remembrance of each century since the arrival of the White Lion, and the impacts those individuals have had on American society. This year’s event was held August 24-26, and featured movie screenings, music, lectures and more.

Before the 2019 bell ringing ceremony could happen, there was a little bit of cleaning up to do however. Which brings us back to my recent visit to Fort Monroe.

The walls of Fort Monroe are quite unique. A sheer vertical outer facing wall is reinforced by an earthen hillside along much of the perimeter. Once inside, you can climb the small hillside in certain spots, one of which would supposedly have taken us up to the pet cemetery.

A local resident described to us how Fort Monroe residents would bury their furry family members into the hillside along the ramparts- often times right into the stones of the wall themselves. She sent us up on a mission- one that we didn't know we were going to take- in search of the somewhat quirky locale. We never found any headstones (later research confirmed they are there though). We did stumble onto a conspicuous looking memorial archway though.

The arch had the look of the sort of architectural detail you’d find left behind at a closed amusement park. A lot of exposed steel, in slightly deteriorating shape. Despite the perfect view over the Chesapeake, there wasn’t much clue as to what might have been the draw in the first place. A nearby historical marker provided the answer- this arch was the Jefferson Davis Memorial Arch at historic Fort Monroe.

Since 1956, a memorial arch to the president of the Confederate States of America sat on an active military base serving the United States of America. The letters JEFFERSON DAVIS MEMORIAL ARCH stretched across the top. Those letters were removed in 2019, shortly before the 400th commemoration. Virginia governor Northam faced the reality that a memorial glorifying a confederate traitor had no place on the grounds of such an important historical shore (or any shore, most would argue).

The letters have come down. Now it’s just an arch. Standing under the arch, you face southeast overlooking Hampton Roads and the entrance to the Chesapeake. Most viewers would probably agree that this vantage point holds the nicest view of the surrounding area. The wide-open view inspires the feeling of freedom. Freedom on the open water and towards endless horizons. But it’s also a view of the waterway that brought the White Lion to shore 400 years earlier. And for 60 years, you could stand and look out, cradled under an arch in the shadow of slavery’s president, Mr. Jefferson Davis.

The parts of me that are tied to art history and architecture really get busy in a place like this. Like most confederate monuments, the Jefferson Davis Arch was commissioned and installed by the daughters of the Confederacy, and the intention has always been the same- to glorify the confederacy as a benevolent and integral part of American culture. Again and again, subtle but clear visual cues are used, often placing confederate icons on literal pedestals. This specific location- the beautiful, breezy, pinnacle of Fort Monroe- was chosen for the innate inspirational feeling it invokes, and the attempt to tie that feeling to the memory of Jefferson Davis was the intention.

The letters on the arch are gone now, but it’s clear what an aggression this was meant to be. I’m glad the marker still remains. I would have never known. I’m not a historian, but I hear historians talk about history in terms of layers. Layers which tell different stories. In One Hundred Shores, I like to link each shoreline to stories with recurring themes. A place like Fort Monroe is the quintessential example of a layered shoreline. One that has stories to tell stretching as far back as we can tell them, and still being rewritten today.

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