Two Hampton trees witnessed start of Virginia slavery, beginnings of freedom

By: - August 23, 2019 12:01 am

The Algernourne Oak in Hampton was standing when the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia 400 years ago this month. (Rex Springston/ For the Virginia Mercury)

HAMPTON — In August 1619, enslaved Africans first arrived in Virginia. During the Civil War in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, which aimed to set millions of slaves free.

Witnesses to both live among us.

They are the Algernourne Oak at Fort Monroe in Hampton, which tree experts say was standing nearby when those slaves arrived, and the Emancipation Oak at Hampton University, where, it’s said, the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in the South took place.

“Old trees put our puny little time frames in perspective,” said Nancy Ross Hugo, an Ashland naturalist and co-author of “Remarkable Trees of Virginia.”

This weekend, several events will commemorate the arrival of those first Virginia slaves 400 years ago at Point Comfort, where Fort Monroe stands now at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. 

Having written recently about those enslaved men and women, I visited Fort Monroe with my wife a few days ago to see what’s there.

Occupying an island-like peninsula, the former “Gibraltar of the Chesapeake” dates to the early 1800s but is now a gem of the National Park Service. Visitors to that scenic peninsula can find uncrowded beaches, free fishing piers and the old fort — the largest stone fort in America — surrounded by a moat. (It’s required to mention the moat in any article about Fort Monroe.)

But what stood out most for me were those two living witnesses, one inside the old fort and the other nearby. Both are live oaks, symbols of the South that, below Virginia, often drip with Spanish moss. Coastal Virginia is the northern tip of the trees’ natural range. They are called “live” oaks because they are nearly evergreen, displaying shiny leaves even in winter.

The Algernourne Oak — sometimes spelled Algernoune or Algernon — is named after a wooden fort that predated Fort Monroe. Standing along Fort Monroe’s parade ground, the majestic tree is nearly 60 feet tall with a crown than spans nearly 90 feet — roughly the length of two and a half school buses. It is the biggest live oak in Virginia.

In 1977, Virginia Tech scientists “cored” nearby trees — a process that involves removing a piece of wood resembling a long soda straw. Scientists can count rings on the wood and determine a tree’s age. With their core-sample evidence, the scientists estimated the Algernourne Oak started life around 1540. That makes it about 479 years old today.

And that means the tree saw, in effect, those first slaves and more. Hugo elaborated in her book:

“Luminaries who may have passed the tree include Edgar Allan Poe, who served as a soldier there; Chief Black Hawk and his warriors, who were ‘detained’ there; President Lincoln, who attended a peace conference there; Robert E. Lee, who served there prior to the Civil War; and Jefferson Davis, who was held prisoner there.

“And that doesn’t include the long, unrecorded native American history on the site or the non-human connections to this tree.”

While the Algernourne Oak was a witness to history, the Emancipation Oak was a participant.

The Emancipation Oak in Hampton bore witness to what is believed to be the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in the South. (Rex Springston/ For the Virginia Mercury)

During the Civil War, Fort Monroe was a Union-occupied post in a Confederate state. Shortly after the war began, three escaped slaves rowed to the fort. Their owner demanded their return, but Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler refused under the theory that the slaves were wartime “contraband,” which meant they could remain under the protection of the fort. After that, enslaved men, women and children flocked to Fort Monroe, which came to be called “Freedom’s Fortress.”

Educating slaves was against the law in Virginia, but near the fort a free black woman named Mary Peake began teaching the refugees.

“She held her first class, which consisted of about 20 students, on Sept. 17, 1861, under a simple oak tree,” according to Hampton University.  

Hugo’s book, written with tree expert Jeff Kirwan, picks up the story:

“By many accounts, it was under this tree in 1863 that a Union soldier read the Emancipation Proclamation to slaves and free blacks gathered beneath it, and many believe this to have been the first reading (of the proclamation) in the South.”

The author’s wife, Kathy Springston, stands under the Emancipation Oak in Hampton. (Rex Springston/ For the Virginia Mercury)

That tree became known as the Emancipation Oak. And those shadetree classes evolved into Hampton University.

No one knows the age of the tree, but it was clearly big enough to offer comfort in the 1860s. Like the Algernourne Oak, the Emancipation Oak today is wider than it is tall, standing only about 50 feet high but with limbs the size of small trees, spreading out over a nearly 100-foot diameter like friendly tentacles.  

If you have ever driven from Hampton to Norfolk via the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, you have passed within yards of the Emancipation Oak.

In fact, a state historical marker honoring the tree stands beside an Interstate 64 on-ramp, a spot where no sane person would stop a car to read. I had to park maybe 100 yards away and dodge traffic, including crossing that busy on-ramp, to get to the sign. 

Another thing: The Emancipation Oak is gorgeous, but it could use a little TLC. Some of its low-lying branches are being overrun by weedy plants, including an invasive species called porcelain-berry.

There is something about big trees that appeals to the hardest heart.

“Some people experience great physical, mental and spiritual enrichment when spending time with a big tree,” said P. Eric Wiseman, a Virginia Tech tree expert and coordinator of the Virginia Big Tree Program, which logs the state’s leafy giants. 

“Others appreciate their shade, sounds and smells. You might encounter people who are generally indifferent to trees, but it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t appreciate a truly big tree.”

And old trees, Hugo said, can help us view today’s problems in a different light.

“It helps to put things in tree time and not human time. It’s just that there are things on Earth, trees in particular, that can help you see from a broader perspective. …They’ve endured so much and they just soldier on.”

They soldier. They inspire. They witness. Some even teach. 

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Rex Springston
Rex Springston

Rex Springston was a reporter for the Richmond News Leader and The Times-Dispatch for 36 years. He lives in Richmond and contributes reporting on history, wildlife and other topics for the Mercury.