The fort and the land it occupies are historically significant because it was where Dutch traders first brought enslaved Africans in 1619. It remained in Union possession during the Civil War and became a place where escaped slaves could find refuge. It’s also where Confederate President Jefferson Davis was once imprisoned following the Civil War.
In a 2005 cost-cutting move, the government decided to close the fort and many other military installations. In September, the Army ended its 188-year presence there.
The fort, which occupied a strategic coastal defensive position at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, was built after the British sailed north from there and burned Washington.
Beyond the historical issues, Obama also was doing some up-to-date politicking aimed at Virginia, a state that may prove crucial to his re-election bid.
“Fort Monroe has played a part in some of the darkest and some of the most heroic moments in American history. But today isn’t just about preserving a national landmark. It’s about helping to create jobs and grow the local economy,” Obama said in a statement. “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 White House pointed to a 2009 economic analysis commissioned by the Fort Monroe Authority that said implementing a plan to reuse the fort would help create nearly 3,000 jobs in Virginia.
Obama was exercising his authority under the Antiquities Act to declare the fort a national monument. Presidents dating to Theodore Roosevelt have used the 1906 law to protect sites deemed to have natural, historical or scientific significance, including the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
The designation of Fort Monroe as a national monument would mark Obama’s first use of his authority under the law.