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Historian works to humanize the enslaved who built Monroe

Lisa Vernon Sparks Daily Press via Associated Press | 8/9/2019, 6 a.m.
A trove of historical re- cords tells that Fort Monroe in Hampton was built on the backs of thousands of ...
This June 11, 2008, file photo shows some of the fortifications inside the moat at Fort Monroe in Hampton. Casemate Museum historian W. Robert Kelly is working to 'humanize those enslaved' at Fort Monroe — one name at a time. Stevel Helber/Associated Press

Ultimately, Mr. Kelly and volunteers who are transcribing the register into an Excel database, want to make the data accessible to the Hamp- ton Roads area for families engaged in genealogy projects, he said.

The Hampton Roads chapter of the AAHGS is an affiliate of the national organization, which fosters and encourages historical and genealogical studies of all ethnic groups, with special emphasis upon Afro-Americans, according to its website.

Stephanie Thomas, president of the local chapter, welcomes the timeliness of Mr. Kelly’s work to provide another tool for the community.

Mr. Kelly said he learned about the registry by chance during a trip the National Ar- chives at Philadelphia several years ago. The research trip in 2014, paid for by the Fort MonroeAuthority, was to gather more data about the history of the fort, which was decommissioned in 2011.

After spending hundreds of hours pouring over documents, discovering the registry was an eye-opener, Mr. Kelly said. The earliest recorded listings of African-Americans did not happen before the 1870 Census.

Prior to that, enslaved Africans were only listed as a number, said archivist Patrick Connelly, who works at the Philadelphia field office.

The 300-page register inside two thickly bound books has been there for decades among 105,000 cubic feet of materials housed at the field office, he said.

In his 20 years working at the archive, Mr. Connelly said the register had not had much traction among researchers — if any. Mr. Connelly added he was happy to tip Mr. Kelly to it.

It was rare to see any federal registry listing enslaved persons, let alone both first and last names, Mr. Connelly said.

“That’s the incredible part,” Mr. Connelly said. “You could think of them as individuals and not as property, which is what they were. With that last name, it makes them more human.”

Mr. Kelly’s three-part paper notes the names of the enslaved, many of which are surnames associated with the Tidewater region. The paper also describes the rates of pay slaves earned for their owners — on average $9 per month, per enslaved person.

Other parts of the register contained documented evidence of the existence of skilled slave labor, including “bricklaying and masonry,” with information about engineers contracting a land owner who owned “black laborers” to provide services, Mr. Kelly wrote.

The second section of Mr. Kelly’s paper focuses on the fort’s Civil War era and the formerly enslaved who were accepted to the fort under Union Gen. Benjamin Butler as contraband of war and began working there.

The third section reviews the preliminary findings and how this primary source information may be incorporated into exhibits at the Fort Monroe Visitors and Education Center, possibly with an interactive display and computer archival access for the community.

“It give us all kinds of opportunity,” Mr. Kelly said. “It’s important we tell the whole story.”