Obama to designate Fort Monroe a National Monument

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President Obama on Tuesday will designate Fort Monroe, an historic fort whose history is steeped in American slavery and the Civil War, as a National Monument. The White House is viewing the move as both a nod to history, and another example of unilateral presidential action on the economy and jobs.

Obama has issued a series of executive orders intended to bypass Congress and spur job growth, under the political banner “we can’t wait.”

“Fort Monroe has played a part in some of the darkest and some of the most heroic moments in American history,” Obama said in a Tuesday statement declaring his first presidential action under the Antiquities Act. “But today isn’t just about preserving a national landmark- it’s about helping to create jobs and grow the local economy. Steps like these won’t replace the bold action we need from Congress to get our economy moving and strengthen middle-class families, but they will make a difference.”

The coastal fort, located in Virginia’s Tidewater region, was built — by slave, contractor and Army convict labor — between 1819 and 1834, and its beachfront location made it a crucial defense point for Virginia. The fort’s structures were erected on the site where African slaves brought by Dutch traders first touched North American soil in 1619.

Fort Monroe was held by the Union throughout the Civil War, and became a refuge for escaped slaves. It was there that Union General Benjamin Butler issued his 1861 “Contraband Decision,” in which he refused to return three enslaved men who took refuge in the fort and were put to work reinforcing union battery positions. Butler’s negation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, citing “contraband of war,” became the precursor to President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

“I’d say it’s crucial to the process of remembering American history from the whole cloth,” said Blair L.M. Kelley, associate professor of history at North Carolina State University and author of Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson. “It’s a site that allows Americans to recall both the terrible shift toward slavery, and then African American resistance at one site. This enriches our memory of who we are as a nation, both how far we have come and that we can never forget.”

“I’m glad to see President Obama use his executive authority in this way,” Kelley said.

The designation of the fort is a rare example of bipartisan agreement, with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar praising praising Virginia’s Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, and Hampton Virginia’s Democratic Mayor Molly Ward, who pressed for the plan to make Fort Monroe a National Park when the president and first lady visited Langley Air Force Base late last month.

“With the strong support of the people of Virginia, from the congressional delegation to Governor McDonnell to Mayor Ward and the citizens of Hampton, President Obama has ensured that this historic fort, a symbol of the long struggle for freedom for African Americans, will be preserved as a national park for generations to come,” Salazar said.

The Hampton area lost some 5,000 jobs when the U.S. Army vacated the 565-acre complex in 2010.

The administration cited a 2009 economic study commissioned by the Fort Monroe Authority in its claim that making Fort Monroe a National Park, and preserving most of its structures and landscapes, would create some 3,000 jobs.

The administration also cited a 2006 study by the National Parks and Conservation Association which claims that for each federal dollar spent on national parks, at least four dollars of economic value are created. The nation’s 21 national parks located in Virginia, and 395 nationwide, not counting Fort Monroe, generate some $13.3 billion in economic activity and support more than 260,000 jobs according to administration figures.

Creating jobs is critical to the president’s re-election strategy, and the administration has chosen to go on the offensive, issuing a series of weekly executive orders, on issues like student loan repayments and prescription drug price gouging, that are designed to demonstrate that the president is not hamstrung by Congressional gridlock.

Virginia is a crucial swing state, which Obama won by a margin of 52.6 percent to 46.3 percent over Sen. John McCain. Obama’s numbers are currently underwater in Virginia, including with crucial independents.

The presidential authority to designate national parks was first used by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 to make Devil’s Tower in Wyoming the nation’s first national monument.

Fourteen subsequent presidents have used the the Antiquities Act to designate such sites as the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island as national monuments.

The president will sign a proclamation designating Fort Monroe a National Monument at 12:30 p.m. EST.