President Barack Obama on Tuesday took a shuttered Army fort in Virginia with an important role in the nation's slavery history and made it a national monument.
Using his authority under a century-old law, Obama signed a proclamation designating Fort Monroe a national monument. That saves it from major development and preserves its history for generations.
At a signing ceremony in the Oval Office, Obama said the fort had played a "remarkable role in the history of our nation." He said he looked forward to visiting and taking daughters Malia and Sasha along to get "a sense of their history."
The fort and the land it sits on are historically significant because it was where Dutch traders first brought enslaved Africans in 1619. It remained in Union possession during the Civil War and became a place where escaped slaves could find refuge. Confederate President Jefferson Davis also was imprisoned there after the Civil War.
Obama said the fort also helped create the environment that led President Abraham Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.
But the government decided in a 2005 cost-cutting move to close the fort and many other military installations. In September, the Army ended its 188-year presence there.
The fort occupied a strategic coastal defensive position at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, having been built after the British sailed north from there and burned Washington.
Beyond the historical issues, Obama noted the economic value of Fort Monroe's designation as a national monument. He said local officials have estimated that a plan for reusing the site would help create nearly 3,000 jobs in next-door Virginia. Obama won the commonwealth in 2008 and it may prove crucial to his re-election bid.
"Fort Monroe has played a part in some of the darkest and some of the most heroic moments in American history. But today isn't just about preserving a national landmark. It's about helping to create jobs and grow the local economy," Obama said in a paper statement released earlier Tuesday. "Steps like these won't replace the bold action we need from Congress to get our economy moving and strengthen middle-class families, but they will make a difference."
The proclamation signing was the latest in a series of executive actions Obama has taken while his $447 billion jobs bill remains stalled in Congress. He took advantage of having several lawmakers with him for the occasion, telling them "I still need some action from Congress" on the bill.
Obama's decision to turn Fort Monroe into a national monument marked the first use of his authority under the Antiquities Act. Presidents dating to Theodore Roosevelt have used the 1906 law to protect sites deemed to have natural, historical or scientific significance, including the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.