Hampton, Virginia, Has Become a Tourism Destination. Why Now?

Long overlooked for Colonial Williamsburg, Hampton is reconciling with its pivotal history—and drawing travelers in the process.

The old Point Comfort Lighthouse in Hampton, Virginia

The old Point Comfort Lighthouse in Hampton, Virginia

Photo by Karen Foley Photography

“Hampton? A tourism destination? No way.”

Two of my oldest friends, Judy and Brandon, stared at me, disbelievingly, over chips and margaritas at the El Diablo Loco Cantina & Tequila Bar in the Phoebus neighborhood of Hampton, Virginia. Our coastal town, home to about 137,000 people, isn’t well known as a tourist spot. That’s Virginia Beach—a 40-minute drive south—or Colonial Williamsburg, the largest outdoor educational museum in the United States. But there’s a storied past among these streets.

Locals will not-so-gently correct people who say that basketball legend Allen Iverson is from Philadelphia. Years before Reebok shoe deals and his top-pick status in the 1996 NBA Draft, Iverson dominated on the court at Hampton’s Bethel High. They even named a gym in his honor.

And it was local mathematician Katherine Johnson’s calculations at NASA’s Langley Research Center that sent the first American to space. But long before athletes made it big and Black women “computers” sent men into orbit, the city of Hampton played a pivotal role in the founding of what became the United States.

As a Hampton native, I’d like to be able to say I knew this, but it wasn’t a fact I’d learned in my school’s history or from neighbors or elders (many of them didn’t know the full story, either). Instead, I found out the truth more than 12 years later, hundreds of miles away, while reading the 1619 Project in the New York Times.

Like many young professionals who left home after high school and never really looked back, I have a complicated relationship with Hampton.

It’s home, where I spent years cracking crabs at Buckroe Beach and eating my way through the Bay Days festival. Yet there was something there the Childhood Me never questioned, like why I attended a Robert E. Lee Elementary school, honoring the Confederate general, and why streets like Kecoughtan, which runs through the city, were named after the Native Americans driven out by the British.

As an adult, if anyone asked where I was from, I’d tell them I was from the D.C./Maryland/Virginia area. No one knows where Hampton is anyway, I rationalized, even with the Hampton Roads metropolitan area serving as home to nearly 2 million residents. But more than that, it felt small, and it seemed like no one tended to leave. As a kid, I’d look up from the sprawling yard of my childhood home and yearn for the day I’d be in one of the planes flying overhead. Once I left, I rarely looked back. Hampton was where I’d lived—where my grandma, my aunties, my cousins, my church, and my neighbors taught me how to navigate life in Hampton and outside of it—but I always sought home in other places.

But here I was, back in Hampton to reconcile with a history under my feet in a town I’d sworn to move on from. I was here to reckon with the past—and to learn what scholars and historians were doing to teach that past to tourists and locals alike.

To begin to understand Hampton, Virginia, is to consider the soil on which it rests.

On a guided history tour promoted by the city, one can learn about the Emancipation Oak, which spans more than 100 feet in diameter at what is now Hampton University. The tree itself is a historic landmark; underneath its sprawling branches, newly freed enslaved people gained respite from the oppressive Virginia heat and the cruelty of chattel slavery. This is where abolitionists, including a Black teacher named Mary Peake, taught the newly freed to read and write. In 1863, the Emancipation Oak was the site of the first Southern reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Seventy years later, five miles away, Aberdeen Gardens began in 1934 as a model resettlement community for African American families. It was the only such community in the United States—“built by Negroes for Negroes”—by a Black architect and contractors. It was a lesser known, but just as important, part of the Civil Rights Movement when Hampton Institute students staged a sit-in at a lunch counter to protest Jim Crow laws in 1960.

But perhaps the most pivotal year was 1619. It was the year the first enslaved Africans—“20 and so odd Negroes,” wrote the English colonizer John Rolfe—arrived on the shores of Old Point Comfort at modern-day Fort Monroe, on the far tip of what was then called the Colony of Virginia, forming the basis of chattel slavery in the United States.

Stories about Old Point Comfort’s role in the forming of U.S. slavery were passed along by word of mouth through families and throughout neighborhoods. Some educators would deviate from the official standards of learning exams to explain how the first Africans arrived. But growing up, I don’t remember learning any of this history. For starters, there have long been financial reasons for overlooking Hampton: Tourism is a boon for Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg, which draws history buffs from around the world. Tourists spent $728 million in Greater Williamsburg in 2020, $446 million of which was spent in the city proper. In comparison, travelers spent $263 million in Hampton in 2019. And while Hampton does have unique points of interest for tourists, it was, ultimately, overshadowed by glossier destinations in the region.

That began to change in 2019, when thousands of people arrived in Hampton in August 2019 to commemorate the 400th year since slavery began. Adorned in white, they cleansed their hands and bodies at Buckroe Beach and called upon the dead through song, dance, and prayer.

For young people who have called this city home, like myself, there’s pain, anger, and acute sadness derived a history that was, for whatever reason, kept from us.

“We just didn’t know,” my friend Brandon said as we looked back through a decade’s worth of history classes, comparing lessons from years past over drinks only a mile away from where our history began.

The last time I’d visited Fort Monroe, in 2010, it was an active Army installation.

There’s something to be said about a location that was so heavily guarded being the birthplace of a history that was so closely guarded.

It was a cold, rainy day and military police, armed with long guns, meticulously searched the cars we drove in. Now, Fort Monroe is no longer an Army base, but part of the National Park Service after being decommissioned by then-President Barack Obama in 2011. There are coffee shops, summer concerts, stately homes that people can rent—but not buy—and million-dollar water views. It closely resembles a college campus, not the military base it once was or the port of entry for the enslaved Africans who arrived in 1619, naked and shivering.

The first Africans, taken from Angola, were not even supposed to be in North America. They were originally aboard the San Juan Bautista when it was attacked by the White Lion and then transported to Point Comfort in exchange for food and other supplies.

To better understand the past and present, I visited the Fort Monroe National Monument. It was here that I met Eola Dance, a native Hamptonian and superintendent for the National Park Service, and Phyllis Terrell, the director of communications at the Fort Monroe Authority. I asked what draws people here.

“A lot of [national] parks have one day [in history]. A battle that took place or a key event or movement. Fort Monroe continues to be this place that is important over time,” Terrell said.

As to why so much of Hampton’s history has been buried, historians point to the mid-20th century, when organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans pushed for revisions with regard to teachings about slavery in public schools. The UDC, in particular, advocated for the “Lost Cause” theory that slavery was immaterial to the Civil War.

“We mostly would have learned about Jefferson Davis’s imprisonment and Robert E. Lee being an engineer here. Outside of that history, we would not have heard about anything else—women’s history or Native American history,” said Dance, whose office at Fort Monroe is in Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s former home.

“Sometimes there are agreements in history,” Dance added, “and sometimes your work challenges agreements—that is what we’re witnessing right now.”

The 1619 Project, which won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, sparked debates nationwide about the role of critical race theory, or CRT, in classrooms. Virginia educators and historians I spoke to told me they’re carefully watching what comes from Richmond. The new governor, Glenn Youngkin, sworn in this past January, campaigned on an anti-CRT platform, and his first action in office was to establish a hotline to report educators accused of teaching it. A month later, Youngkin visited Fort Monroe, writing on Twitter that it was important “to tell all our history”—indicative, some believe, of the tug-of-war that pundits and politicians have played with history.

“What we are experiencing—that’s normal, that’s what we’re supposed to do,” Dance said, referring to debates about CRT. “We’re supposed to have different perspectives. People use different methodologies and different resources.

“What I see in this moment is the beauty of how history, journalism, archaeology, anthropology, sociology, and history—in terms of public history—all come together and help us to see the whole picture.”

I wanted to learn more about how educators were teaching this history, so I reached out to Fredricka Conyers-Brinkley—whom I affectionately call my “Mama”—an African American history teacher at Phoebus High School, my alma mater. Over beers at the 1865 Brewing Company, a Black-owned brewery and speakeasy located in the Phoebus neighborhood, I discovered many kids have far more questions about the past than I did as a child. And they aren’t afraid to challenge those entrusted to teach them.

“I had a conversation with a student recently, and they were upset because they felt like [the 1619 commemoration] was a celebration of slavery. I had to explain to them the difference between a celebration and a commemoration. When you know your history, you walk with your head up high—there’s a whole different sense of self-pride,” she said.

For people who call Hampton home, it’s that self-pride that sparks them to share “their” Hampton, with tourists and locals alike. William Comer, 1865 Brewing Company’s founder, says he’s benefited from tourism to Hampton, largely from people paying homage at Fort Monroe.

“It’s a beautiful city,” he told me across the bar of the brewery on a balmy April afternoon. “It’s growing. This is why they say Phoebus [has] come alive because it came from nothing.”

It is a beautiful city—as it is complicated and intriguing. And it’s becoming a tourism destination for travelers seeking to pay homage to and recreate the path of those 20 and odd enslaved souls 400 years ago. The city now offers driving and bus tours for interested travelers who come to Hampton, and online tours for those who can’t make the journey.

As a journalist, I returned to the city to get a better understanding of exactly why 1619 seemed like a secret to residents. I left with as many answers as I arrived with questions. But like the travelers who visited Buckroe and Point Comfort in 2019, I departed with a greater understanding of myself and the forming of this country. And, for the first time ever, I missed home when I left.

Victoria M. Walker is a travel reporter and the founder of the travel lifestyle site and newsletter Travel With Vikkie. She is a special correspondent for Afar.
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