By Matthew A. Ward
CHESAPEAKE, Va (Reuters) - Chauncey Brown is one of thousands of Americans descended from so-called contraband slaves who hope President Barack Obama will create the first national monument of his presidency at a fort where their ancestors once sought refuge.
The U.S. Army this week is handing over Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, to the state and an authority charged with deciding the future of the site. Fort Monroe played a crucial role in the emancipation of blacks during the Civil War.
Brown, 66, and others want Obama to preserve the fort by invoking the American Antiquities Act of 1906, which gives presidents executive authority to restrict the use of public land.
"I'm very concerned that this place, Fort Monroe, be made a national monument of some sort," said Brown, a visitor information center worker in Hampton. "It fleshes out the whole story of how our country actually came about."
In 1861, three escaped slaves were given safe haven at the fort that managed to stay under Union control despite being in a rebel state. They were declared by Major General Benjamin Butler as "contrabands of war" and were not returned to their owner.
According to the Fort Monroe Authority, 10,000 slaves subsequently fled there and were given protection, helping prompt President Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation declaring all slaves free in the states rebelling against the federal government.
The fort also is significant because the first captive Africans to reach the New World landed in 1619 at the site that would become the six-sided stone fortress, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis was imprisoned there for two years after the war.
The campaign for Fort Monroe's protection began in 2005 when it was slated for closure by the Department of Defense. Hampton Mayor Molly Ward said the effort to preserve it drew bipartisan support from local politicians and the community.
"It's been amazing, especially in these times of all the animosity and lack of collegiality you see in Washington, to see all these elected officials come together," Ward said.
The site is a developer's dream of eight miles of Chesapeake Bay waterfront and 3.2 miles of beaches. The Fort Monroe Authority plans to allow residential and commercial development on the fort's 565 acres.
But Ward said she "leans on the side of the bigger the National Park Service unit, the better."
"I don't think people understand just how important the contraband slave decision was, and is, and the effect it had on Lincoln's thinking and other leaders' thinking," Ward said.
Ward and others also recognize the tourism potential of declaring Fort Monroe a national monument.
Authority literature boasts that Fort Monroe will join the region's other main historical attractions of Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown and Jamestown, now know as America's Historic Triangle, to create the Historic Quadrangle.
"To me it will create the perfect synergy of a place to go," Ward said.
Supporters of the preservation effort expect Obama to rule in their favor on Thursday, the same day a ceremony at the fort will mark the Army's departure.
"We're hearing at this point...that the proclamation will come from the president (then)," said Alan Spears, the legislative representative for the National Parks Conservation Association.
The act has been invoked more than 100 times, quite often controversially because critics perceive it as an overreach of executive power.
"There will be some development that goes on there...but I don't think when we get a national monument declared there that we're subject to getting the 10-story hotels with the Klieg lights, or the racetrack or the casino (and) other things that would really undermine the historic integrity of the area," Spears said.
Chauncey, whose family attends Queen Street Baptist Church, one of several churches in the area founded by contraband slaves, prays that his ancestors' story is promoted by whatever the future brings for Fort Monroe.
"My hope is that the contraband slave story will be well done and one of the centerpieces of whatever happens at Fort Monroe," he said.
(Edited by Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune)