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The Emancipation Oak where 'contraband' became free — in XR

Retha Hill
·Contributor
·3-min read

Black History Month would not be complete without reflecting on America’s “peculiar institution” of slavery — how it began and how it came to an end. On one stretch of sacred ground in Hampton, Va., both the beginnings and endings of this brutal system happened within a few yards of each other.

In 1619, the first Africans were marched off a warship and sold into slavery. Nearly 244 years later, under a massive oak tree not far from where those first Africans trod, formerly enslaved people who had fled to the protection of the Union Army at Fort Monroe gathered to hear the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The free people gathered there were remarkable because their very presence had helped to lay the groundwork for the proclamation some 20 months before. On the day that Virginia seceded from the Union, three enslaved men — Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory and James Townsend — had been sent to the waterfront to build Confederate defenses across from Fort Monroe. Knowing they were to be sold farther south to help the slavers, the men decided that as soon as it was dark they would take a skiff, make a break for the fort and ask for protection.

The next morning the men were brought before the commander, Gen. Benjamin Butler. After questioning them, Butler made the decision to declare Baker, Mallory and Townsend “contraband” of war. As he sent word to his superiors in Washington, Butler was aware that President Lincoln, fearful of angering slave-holding states still in the Union, had fired other generals who had unilaterally freed enslaved people. But the contraband argument made practical sense.

When a representative of the owner of the three men came to the fort and demanded that Butler return them under the Fugitive Slave Act, Butler reminded them that Virginia was no longer a part of the United States and the law no longer applied. The representative left empty-handed, and as word spread of Butler’s decision, hundreds, then thousands, of enslaved people rushed to the fort, growing into three contraband villages.

Escaped slaves working as washerwomen
Escaped slaves were referred to as "contrabands," an expression coined by Gen. Benjamin Butler. (Mathew Brady/Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

The old oak tree in one of the villages was a favorite place for children and adults to take their lessons from abolitionist teachers. So it was at that place that the Proclamation was read for the first time on Southern soil. At the war’s end, the tree was at the center of what would become the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, now Hampton University, one of America’s best known historically Black universities.

The mighty “Emancipation Oak,” as it is called, still stands, as does Lincoln’s powerful proclamation. Explore the XR experience above to listen to the famous speech from under this historic American tree.

Retha Hill is the founder of AncestoriesXR.com, a startup for family genealogists that creates an interactive, virtual-reality way for people to go back in time to see the world that an ancestor would have experienced. The user can walk in their ancestor’s shoes, see the neighborhoods where they lived, and experience in virtual reality the events that were taking place at that time. Hill is a professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Arizona State University.

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