In May of 1861, Union Major General Benjamin Butler decreed that any escaping slaves reaching Union lines would be considered “contraband of war” and would not be returned to bondage. This resulted in waves of enslaved people rushing to the fort in search of freedom. A camp to house the newly freed slaves was built several miles outside the protective walls of Fort Monroe.
It was named “The Grand Contraband Camp” and functioned as the United States’ first self-contained African American community.
In order to provide the masses of refugees some kind of education, Mary Peake, a free Negro, was asked to teach, even though an 1831 Virginia law forbid the education of slaves, free blacks and mulattos. She held her first class, which consisted of about twenty students, on Sept. 17, 1861, under a simple oak tree. This tree would later be known as the Emancipation Oak and would become the site of the first Southern reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
Today, the Emancipation Oak still stands on the Hampton University campus as a lasting symbol of the promise of education for all.
General Samuel Armstrong was appointed in 1866 to Superintendent of the Freedmen’s Bureau of the Ninth District of Virginia. Drawing upon his experiences with mission schools in Hawaii, he procured funding from the American Missionary Association to establish a school on the Wood Farm, also known as “Little Scotland” adjacent to the Butler School. On April 1, 1868, Armstrong opened Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute with a simple declared purpose.
“The thing to be done was clear: to train selected Negro youth who should go out and teach and lead their people first by example, by getting land and homes; to give them not a dollar that they could earn for themselves; to teach respect for labor, to replace stupid drudgery with skilled hands, and in this way to build up an industrial system for the sake not only of self-support and intelligent labor, but also for the sake of character.”
Hampton University will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2018.