At Fort Monroe National Monument in Hampton, Va., people from around the world are gathering starting Friday for a three-day program of events commemorating the “African Landing” — when a ship arrived 400 years ago with “20 and odd Negroes” from Angola.

While many will be focused on 1619 and the beginning of slavery in the United States, people in the Hampton Roads area point out that Fort Monroe is called “Freedom’s Fortress” for a reason.

Fort Monroe is also the site where three black men forced "the beginning of the end of slavery,” as Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. once described it.

On May 23, 1861, just over a month after the start of the Civil War, the three — Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend — fled from slavery to seek asylum at the Union Army fort.

Gen. Benjamin Butler decided to treat the men as “contraband” of war, and they were not returned to rebel slave owners.

Sheri Bailey, a playwright and activist in nearby Portsmouth, said the men emancipated themselves. By the end of the war, thousands more had sought refuge at Fort Monroe, and about 500,000 African American captives had escaped to Union encampments across the South.

A new visitor center won’t be complete this weekend as had been hoped, said Robin Reed, director of museums for the Fort Monroe Authority. However, people will still get to see a preview of the museum’s exhibits, which start with Native American history before the English arrived and continue through 1619, the Civil War, and the desegregation of the armed forces to the present.

Terry E. Brown, Superintendent of the Fort Monroe National Monument, poses next to a historical marker that signifies the spot of the first landing of Africans in America 400 years ago.
Steve Helber / AP
Terry E. Brown, Superintendent of the Fort Monroe National Monument, poses next to a historical marker that signifies the spot of the first landing of Africans in America 400 years ago.

Calvin Pearson, founder of Project 1619 Inc., helped Virginia correct its history on where the first Africans landed, at Point Comfort, now known as Fort Monroe, not Jamestown.

He said Fort Monroe should be seen as historically important as Monticello, Gettysburg, and the Liberty Bell.

“Right now, there’s a triangle of Virginia tourism sites that include Historic Jamestowne, Yorktown, and Colonial Williamsburg,” Pearson said. “But we need to add Fort Monroe and make it a diamond.”

Bailey, founder of the Juneteenth Festival Company, an arts-based organization that uses theater to discuss racism and slavery, said she hopes Fort Monroe will provide a building to local arts and community organizations.

“We would like to use a building at Fort Monroe as a center for conversation about race and the development of anti-racist policies,” she said. ”Often when we talk about race, everyone is fired up and feeling defensive, but theater makes them less defensive and better able to speak honestly and to hear clearly.

“Our mission is to help America heal the wounds of slavery without shame or blame.”