HAMPTON, VA. – If you’re headed to some of the most popular beaches in the mid-Atlantic, chances are you’ll encounter the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel. 

Thousands of drivers use that stretch of Interstate 64 every day, to get to Hampton, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach. 

Well, a stone’s throw from that bridge, you’ll find historic Fort Monroe, in Hampton. 

The former army post played a major role in the Civil War.  

But, it also served as the gateway to freedom for thousands of enslaved African Americans. 

In this Hidden History report, Don Roberts shows us how at least one historian compares the fort to New York’s famed Ellis Island. 

The Ellis Island, New York, was the gateway to freedom for millions of European immigrants. 

They fled poverty and oppression, for a chance to achieve the American Dream.

Well, one noted historian says there was another Ellis Island, for African Americans. 

In 1619 A ship with about 20 African captives goes into the Chesapeake Bay, lands at Fort Monroe, which was then called Fort Algernon,” says Adam Goodheart. “It really started with three very brave young men – Frank Baker, James Townsend and Shepard Mallory who were enslaved men in the Hampton Roads area. They had been conscripted- forced into providing labor for the Confederate army.” 

The escaped and they came to the fort and presented themselves to the Union Sentries and asked to be sheltered. 

“Shortly after Baker, Townsend, and Mallory made their way through those gates, and were given asylum here at Fort Monroe, the word spread like wildfire. And within months, hundreds of escaped slaves made their way to the fort and were also given asylum, they were declared contraband of war. The word continued to spread and shortly after that, thousands of escaped slaves found their way to Fort Monroe.”

Retired Hampton University History Professor Bill Wiggins says being declared contraband meant they were still considered property and they were put to work for the Union Army, in the fields, where ever needed, until emancipation in 1863. 

We’re told the park will recognize the contraband history with a week of activities in May. And Fort Monroe is planning to open a new visitor center in August. 

That center will pay special tribute to the contraband and Native American History. And join in the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans in the US.