The Emancipation Oak, on the grounds of Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia.
In May of 1861, just weeks after Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina, the Union army deployed thousands of troops to bolster Fort Monroe – a strategic defense at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in Hampton, Virginia.
On May 23 three runaway slaves sought refuge at the fort, and the fort commander, Benjamin Butler, offered them sanctuary, deeming them “contrabands of war” rather than fugitives still owned by dispossessed slave holders. By August over 500 escaped slaves had made their way to the fort. The contraband camp at Fort Monroe ultimately provided refuge to over 10,000 former slaves.
Butler’s decision to provide asylum behind Union lines to the runaways was politically daring. Though he was castigated by congress, the decision eventually led Abraham Lincoln to overcome his dithering about the status of slaves, leading to issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
In antebellum Virginia it had been illegal to teach slaves to read and write. In 1861 a school for contraband children was established a few miles from Fort Monroe, with the first classes held outdoors under a large live oak tree. In 1863 the Butler School was built on the site – the earliest foundations of an educational endeavor that led to the creation of the Hampton Normal School, the forerunner of Hampton University.
The Emancipation Proclamation was read in the south for the first time to contrabands assembled under this majestic tree, still thriving on the university campus.
Top photo: The tangled branches and central bole of the Emancipation Oak (Quercus virginiana). This huge tree is about 8 feet in diameter at breast height (2.5 m), with a canopy that spans about 100 feet (30 m). Center photo: The Old Point Comfort Light at Fort Monroe. Bottom photo: An Emancipation Oak acorn.
These photos and text were originally posted in November, 2011, and are reposted today for #americanguideweek