The Petersburg Area has an extraordinarily rich African-American Heritage that dates from the earliest English settlers in the 1600s to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.
Colonial African-American History
In the 1600s, English colonists sailed up the James and Appomattox rivers, and built settlements alongside Native Americans and brought with them their indentured servants and slaves as laborers. In the 1700s, a large number of enslaved Africans entered Virginia at Bermuda Hundred, (today’s Chesterfield County). Later in the century, the area was a hotbed of abolitionist sentiment and home to many of the movement’s leaders. The area’s population of free blacks grew and gained a degree of economic independence. By 1860 Petersburg had one of the largest free African-American populations in Virginia and the nation. The first black Baptist church in America, First African Baptist Church was founded in 1774 in Prince George County. It later moved to Petersburg where it became known as First Baptist Church and still operates at 236 Harrison Street.
Civil War and Reconstruction
During the Civil War, African-Americans both built the Confederate fortifications that protected Petersburg and distinguished themselves in attacking those fortifications with the Union Army as U.S. Colored Troops. African-American troops captured City Point from which Union General Ulysses Grant directed the Siege of Petersburg. In the 1880s free blacks in the Petersburg Area aligned themselves with former Confederate General William “Little Billy” Mahone, who helped found Virginia’s first public college for African-Americans, the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute now known as Virginia State University, located in Chesterfield County.
1 Hayden Drive
Petersburg VA 23806
Elizabeth Keckley was born a slave in Diniwiddie County and later lived in Petersburg. Keckley eventually bought her freedom and made her way to Washington D.C. where she became a trusted confidant of then first lady Mary Todd Lincoln. During the closing days of the Civil War as President Abraham Lincoln stayed in the Petersburg area, Ms. Keckley visited the area with Mrs. Lincoln.
Jim Crow and Civil Rights
The conservative Democratic political machine that arose to rid Virginia of African-American political influence lasted for eight decades and established the pattern of Jim Crow segregation laws in Virginia. Its power was finally broken and Jim Crow was ended by the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited the area repeatedly during this period culminating in a major speech at Virginia State University on July 2, 1965.
Historic Sites and Tours
This school located in the Winterpock section of Chesterfield County, was one of the first public schools for African-Americans in the county. It now serves as a community center for a local church.
Tours by appointment.
This tiny peninsula on the Appomattox River is thought to be Petersburg’s earliest predominantly African-American neighborhood. The first enslaved blacks were brought here in 1732 to work tobacco and it became its own town 20 years later. The Pocahontas Island/Richard A. Stewart Museum houses a private collection of African-American artifacts from around the world.
Tours by appointment.
224 Witten Street
Petersburg, VA 23803
Pamplin Historical Park
Pamplin Historical Park’s acclaimed National Museum of the Civil War Soldier features the stories of 13 soldiers, including black soldier Sgt. Alexander H. Newton of the 29th Connecticut Infantry. The Field Quarter is one of America’s finest slave life exhibits. Reproduction cabins, outbuildings and a garden simulate the meager living conditions of field slaves and their families. At the Banks House visitors may experience the rare opportunity to view an original 1840s slave structure.
Petersburg National Battlefield
Petersburg National Battlefield offers a free brochure titled “African-Americans at Petersburg” that highlights the actions of the 850 slaves and free blacks who helped build the Confederate fortifications around Petersburg and the 7,800 U.S. Colored Troops who fought and died in the campaign, including the Battle of the Crater.
Petersburg: The Underground Railroad and the Struggle for Freedom
There is a brochure and walking tour map which is a guide to discovering 28 sites in Old Towne Petersburg tied to African-American history and the Underground Railroad.
Petersburg Visitors Center
19 Bollingbrook Street
Petersburg, VA 23803