When it comes to landmarks in African-American history, few places can match the depth and breadth of the milestones that have played out over the past 400 years in America's oldest continuous English-speaking settlement.
Here are some of the nationally important events that took place in Hampton:
The first documented Africans in Virginia moored off Old Point Comfort in 1619 — some 12 years after the first English settlers sailed into Hampton Roads on their way to founding Jamestown. "About the latter end of August, a Dutch man of Warr of the burden of a 160 tunnes arrived at Point-Comfort, the Commandors name Capt. Jope," colonist John Rolfe reported. "He brought not any thing but 20. And odd Negroes, w(hich) the Governo(r) and Cape Merchant bought for victuals."
That vessel was the White Lion, which in the late 1990s was discovered by historian Engel Sluiter to have seized them from a Portuguese slave-trader en route from Africa to Mexico. Three or four days later the privateer was followed by its consort — the Treasurer — which carried as many as 29 more Africans taken from the same ship, and some of them were sold before it departed.
In 1998, Fort Monroe-born historian John K. Thornton published new evidence demonstrating that most, if not all the early Africans transported to Virginia were likely to have been Ndongo people from the Congo, who were captured by African mercenaries fighting alongside the Portuguese and then sold as slaves from Angola between late-June 1619 and mid-1620.
First black child
Little is known about the African couple who became the Adam and Eve of black America. According to historian Martha McCartney's authoritative 2007 book "Virginia Immigrants and Adventurers, 1607-1635: A Biographical Dictionary," Anthony and Isabell show up first in the Virginia census of Feb. 16, 1624, when their master — Elizabeth City County planter Capt. William Tucker — identified them as part of his household. They crop up again in the muster of 1625, when Tucker recorded the names and races of "Antoney Negro, Isabell Negro." Then he added the name of "William, theire child, baptised."
The first documented African-American child in the English colonies was probably born at his master and namesake's plantation on the west side of the Hampton River, where Tucker had constructed three dwellings and a wooden palisade for his family and 18 servants, Hampton History Museum Curator J. Michael Cobb says. He was most likely baptized in the settlement of Kecoughtan's second church, which was constructed on the east bank of the Hampton River near present-day Hampton University after the bloody Indian uprising of 1622.
Pioneering black school
Free black Mary Peake was flouting the law when — not long after moving from Norfolk to Hampton in the early 1850s — she began teaching slaves and free blacks to read and write. But the town's whites broke ranks with the rest of the South, Cobb says, and their tolerance combined with her quiet but fearless efforts gave Hampton's large African-American population a conspicuously high level of education.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, Peake redoubled her efforts, teaching classes day and night for the tidal wave of refugee slaves streaming into Union-occupied Hampton. So prominent did she become in just a few months that — when Rev. Lewis C. Lockwood of the American Missionary Association arrived on Sept. 3 — he hired her as the first teacher in a crucial alliance of blacks, Northern missionaries and Union army supporters who built and operated schools for thousands.
Five months later, Peake died of consumption at age 39 after teaching from her sick bed — as Lockwood recalled in his 1862 biography — until her last days. But her influence lasted far beyond her final class.
"There was a distinct difference in the blacks at Hampton. They were much more cosmopolitan, much more sophisticated than those found in such places as the Sea Islands in South Carolina," writes the late Robert F. Engs in his pioneering 1979 study "Freedom's First Generation: Black Hampton, Virginia 1861-1890."
"And the fact that they could read persuaded many Northern whites that they deserved freedom."
No moment was more crucial to the abolition of slavery during the Civil War than the May 24, 1861 meeting between Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler and three runaway Hampton slaves seeking asylum at Fort Monroe. Instead of returning them to their master as required by the Fugitive Slave Act, the Massachusetts attorney gave them sanctuary as "contraband of war," creating a promise of freedom that not only drew tens of thousands of refugee blacks to the fort's gates but also paved the way for an increasingly ambitious series of Federal laws that ended in emancipation.
So many slaves fled their masters for what became known as "Freedom's Fortress" that — by the end of the war — some 40,000 had concentrated in various camps and villages on the Peninsula, Engs writes. Among the most prominent was the sprawling Grand Contraband Camp in Hampton, where at least 7,000 pioneering refugees built homes, schools and churches in a self-conscious demonstration of their new status.
"You can't underestimate the social and political chaos and fluidity these escaping people created — or their determination to take advantage of it," Engs observed in 2011. "Considering all the obstacles they faced, the fact that they accomplished so much was a remarkable demonstration of tenacity. They knew when they packed up that freedom was not going to be easy or free."
Lincoln's black legion. With the keenly interested Butler supervising from Fort Monroe, the refugee slave camps of Hampton became a critical recruiting and training ground for U.S. Colored Troops in late 1863 and early '64, providing the men needed to raise two cavalry regiments and a light artillery battery in addition to supplying hundreds of enlistees to 10 infantry regiments based in Hampton Roads.
In General Orders No. 46 issued on Dec. 3, 1863, Butler took the radical step of commanding that "every enlisted colored man shall have the same uniform, clothing, arms, equipments, camp equipage, rations, medical and hospital treatment as are furnished to the U.S. soldiers." He also instituted a $10 enlistment bounty in addition to $10 monthly pay, then called on Congress to make the black soldiers' rate the same as whites'.
"(I) can see no reason why a colored soldier should be asked to fight upon less pay than any other," Butler proclaimed. "The colored man fills an equal space in the ranks while he lives, and an equal grave when he falls."
Many of the black soldiers recruited or trained in and around Hampton received indispensable field experience in operations on the Lower and Middle Peninsulas as well as North Carolina and South Hampton Roads. That later proved crucial in their stand-out combat performances at Wilson's Wharf and New Market Heights in 1864, when they defeated their Confederate foes in daunting, toe-to-toe battles.
"Compare what happened here to out in Texas, where the black units spent their time guarding fields of cotton," historian John V. Quarstein noted in 2014. "They knew how to march in hostile territory. They knew how to set a picket line. They knew how to skirmish. They already had a purpose — and now they knew how to fight."
Hampton Institute. When the American Missionary Association began teaching runaway slaves in Hampton in 1861, it hoped to change their lives forever. But it took the post-war vision of former U.S. Colored Troops commander, Congregationalist missionary and Hampton Freedmen's Bureau chief Samuel Chapman Armstrong to mold those hopes into the pioneering school that not only transformed the local black community but also helped plant the seeds of a rising black middle class across the South.
Joining forces with the AMA, Chapman bought a 120-acre farm on the east bank of the Hampton River in 1867, then opened Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute — now Hampton University — the following year with two teachers and 15 students. Within 25 years, the school had trained nearly 1,000 teachers, most of whom went home to reshape the futures of some 130,000 black students across the South, a 2004 Daily Press story reported.
In addition to training, employing and serving as the institutional model for nationally known black educator Booker T. Washington, the school turned out hundreds of prominent local black leaders, including pioneering attorneys Thomas C. Walker of Gloucester, James A. Fields of Newport News and Andrew W.E. Bassett Sr. of Hampton.
"I went to Hampton in patches," wrote Bassett, who went on from his 1876 graduation to become a prominent Hampton educator, a founder of the People's Building and Loan Association of Hampton and assistant commonwealth's attorney.
Aberdeen Gardens. From its inception in 1934, the 158-unit New Deal housing project originally known as the Newport News Homestead was intended to be a national showcase for African-American neighborhoods.
Initiated by a coalition of local black leaders allied with Hampton Institute president Arthur Howe, the innovative $1.4 million settlement was the first federal homestead community intended to house African-Americans — and the only one to be designed by a black architect, built by black workers and managed by a black construction superintendent.
With indoor plumbing, electricity and central heat, the Colonial Revival brick homes offered a standard of living many residents had never known. Aberdeen also boasted such innovative "Garden City" features as an expansive green belt, wide grassy medians and large lots designed for kitchen gardens.
"They were attractive, well-built houses — especially compared to the slums that most of the residents came from — and they all had nice gardens and green spaces," says Cobb, describing the tight-knit neighborhood that became a National Historic Landmark in 1994. "So what you got was this common environment — a very distinctive environment — in which the residents really thrived — and with which they had a strong common bond."
Erickson can be reached at 757-247-4783.
Online: Go to dailypress.com/history to see photo galleries on contraband slaves, USCT troops and Aberdeen Gardens.