By Emily Blackner
Many people dream of entering the Oval Office, but very few actually get to experience it. One of those lucky few was Washington College’s own Professor Adam Goodheart, who was invited to attend a special signing ceremony.
On Nov. 1, President Barack Obama used his executive authority to create a national monument at Fort Monroe, located near Hampton, Va. The first slave ships to come to the Colonies arrived there, but later, in the first months of the Civil War, the admittance of three escaped slaves into the fort’s protection helped to end the institution of slavery.
Goodheart chronicled the three slaves’ flight to the fort in his recent book “1861” and also in an article in the New York Times magazine, which became the most emailed article of the week. His efforts helped to bring the fort to the attention of White House staff.
“I was told that everyone had a copy of that article on their desk,” said Goodheart, who serves as the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of the CV Starr Center.
Because of the role his work played in the decision to create the national monument, Goodheart was one of only a dozen or so people invited to attend the signing ceremony in the Oval Office. Goodheart had been to the White House before.
“I had been invited to a few presidential events before, but they had always been large ones, usually with hundreds or even thousands of people,” he said. This time, “I was invited only two days before they wanted me to come. It was a total surprise.”
He said that other attendees included congressmen, senators, the Director of the National Park Service, the Secretary of the Army, the Secretary of the Interior, and several local officials.
“It is exciting as a historian to be in the White House because you get to see artifacts with historical resonance,” Goodheart said. “We were shown in to wait in the Roosevelt Room, named after Theodore Roosevelt and FDR, which I thought was very appropriate but probably coincidental, as both created several national parks themselves.”
The president himself opened the door to the Oval Office.
“He spoke to each of us individually and we introduced ourselves,” Goodheart said.
After all the guests were lined up behind his desk, “the president spoke for about five minutes, without notes, about the site and its importance and thanked those who helped make it happen. He also spoke about the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation and pointed to the original, framed copy that hung on the wall,” he said.
The video of this speech is available on the White House website.
Obama then signed the executive order.
“It was very exciting to stand and look over his shoulder as he did that,” said Goodheart.
After the bill signing ceremony, the attendees lined up for another picture.
Goodheart had the opportunity to talk to Obama a little bit about WC as everyone got into place.
“I told him a bit about the College and that we have a strong presidential history,” he said. “I said I hoped he’d come out and visit, and that Malia and Sasha [his daughters] would consider attending. I also said I consider Fort Monroe the Plymouth Rock of African American culture.”
The press corps left after taking that group photograph, and the attendees were escorted out of the office.
“We spent, in all, about 15 to 20 minutes with the president in the Oval Office,” Goodheart said. “It seemed symbolic that when we left we walked out through a door between a portrait of Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation.
“After the ceremony, the Secretary of the Interior had a reception at his office. I talked with Secretary Ken Salazar who told me that he ‘couldn’t think of a place that has more national historical significance than Fort Monroe,’” he said.
For Goodheart, the short notice and security checks were worth it in order to attend this important ceremony.
“It was an honor to attend,” he said. “Very rarely do historians get to see their work have this kind of an impact.”