The canons stand ominously on the brick walls of the fort, a reminder of the ugliness of human nature. The canons were for protection, yet stand on walls of brick built by those whose protection and rights were nonexistent.
The awful story of how these walls were built contrast oddly with the environment that surrounds them: blue cloudless skies provide the perfect background for the beautiful walls of historic Fort Pickens, and the nearby sea is a calming presence.
Narrow and long hallways that one day lead to storage spaces for ammunition are not at all inviting for those who dislike tight spaces, but seem to scream adventure to young children who don’t succumb to such irrational fears. So in they go, seeing how far they’ll get before having to turn back around. And the darkness of the space doesn’t seem to faze them.
The archways that support these structures are beautiful, but it’s impossible not to think of the labour used to create these spaces. Brick by brick they built these walls, while taking orders from those who viewed them as less than human. How did we get to the point of looking at someone and believing they were not persons? And how have we allowed ourselves to repeat history, over and over, without looking back and having compassion for those who went before? When will we learn?
There are no easy answers to these questions. But if we come from a place of love, a place of believing that all humans are truly equal…. Perhaps we can prevent these tragedies, and stop the ones that continue to occur. Slavery may have been abolished, but human trafficking and forced labour are still alive and well in the underground. Perhaps the first place to start is to end our tendency to gloss over history, or to only tell it from one perspective.
Transporting people from one continent to another to conveniently forget that they were people isn’t the only tragedy to remember at this fort and other places in the Americas. The displacement, mistreatment of and broken promises to hundreds of native peoples are etched in these walls as well. And I can’t help but wonder if the fate of the Apalachees shouldn’t be granted more than just two interpretive panels stating they were prisoners here. There’s always more to the story.
There is one redeeming quality to the dark history of how this beautiful fort was built: it may have used slave labour, but in the end, it played a large role in ending the confederacy and freeing slaves. Fort Pickens is a place of contradictions, where beauty and horror intermingle in the eyes of all who look upon it. And perhaps for that reason, it still attracts thousands of tourists each year.
The sun peeks through the openings in the bricks, illuminating the stained archways of the fort. It’s a beautiful day to learn some history… and a good day to think about preventing history from repeating itself.