HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) — This Black History Month, Americans are encouraged to take the time to learn not only learn about Black contributions to history but use these stories to push forward as a nation.
Over the past year, the United States has seen calls for racial and social justice stemming from centuries of oppression experienced by people of African ancestry.
Eola Dance, who is the acting park superintendent at Fort Monroe National Monument, says 2021 is a good time for our community to reflect on all that’s happened.
In 1619, about 20 Africans were brought against their will to Point Comfort, where Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia is located today. A historical marker now stands there to commemorate the landing of the first enslaved Africans in the New World.
“I see it’s especially an important moment now in reflecting some of the concerns that scholars and communities have had for decades and centuries. Much of what has come about in this last year, when it comes to racial and social strife, is rooted in the ideas founded in the American Revolution and the U.S. Constitution,” she said. “So, these are of liberty, justice, and equality, particularly equal protection under the law. When you think about Black History Month, you have the opportunity to reflect on African American origins and understand that history begins before slavery. You have the opportunity to learn about the disruptions of slavery and of the transatlantic slave trade. You get to dig deeper into the lived experiences of African Americans, the contributions they’ve made to American society, and that, to me, underscores the pain, frustration, and even anger that we’ve seen this past year and in the month of January, when you see how the protests are perceived from one group to another and that’s what I think we’re reflecting on right now.”
Dance, who has worked in the National Park Service for 20 years, grew up in Hampton Roads and says her understanding of Black History Month comes from its origins.
Virginia native and historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson initiated Negro History Week. That week was bookended by the birthdays of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln.
“Over time, it has evolved to this monthly celebration but at its roots, it wanted to put into the hands of educators themes and tools to help communities to learn the contributions and lives of African Americans and also descendants of African Americans. It’s had a world and U.S. perspective to it,” she said.
As Black History Month has evolved, it’s paved the way for many untold stories to be uncovered.
Fort Monroe is one of the places that is working to tell those stories, especially since it’s the site for the first African landing in English North America as well as where the Contraband Decision of the Civil War was made.
Dance says she grew up knowing about the first landing site as well as the Contraband Decision but it was something you had to know was at Fort Monroe to know of its importance.
“We’re really seeking to tell the untold stories and expand the narrative. That’s what’s so incredible and moving. You know that you’re really doing something that makes a difference and help people, all people, and create the stage for healing and reconciliation and truth-telling,” she said.
Dance says that learning about history gives society the opportunity to learn and be able to empathize with other dark times in history for other cultures.
So, hopefully, during these next 28 days, America can learn from its history to help heal wounds that continue to hurt many.
“History has the opportunity to help us remember and never forget. Either we redirect and do things different, or be confronted with our own shortcomings,” Dance said. “I think history is essential. It’s foundational and it’s the only way to have a clear way of knowing where you’re going and where you come from.”
Fort Monroe is open except for at its visitors center. It will be hosting a virtual event, “Evolution of Freedom,” on Feb. 25 with the music group Les Nubians.