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 and beyond. 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 late 1700s and 1800s, 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 living and operating businesses on Pocahontas Island.
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. Pocahontas Island was home to many Underground Railroad houses, including the Jarrett House (under renovation).
The Black History Museum, located on Pocahontas Island, is home to a treasure trove of artifacts and other historical items of interest that showcases over 300 years of Black history. Established in 2003 by Richard Stewart, a Black History and Civil War expert, Stewart delights in taking visitors on an oral journey of black history in the Petersburg area. The museum is a labor of love for him and he is passionate about preserving the history of the island for current and future generations.
Bus groups, schools, tourists and lovers of history are encouraged to visit to experience the museum’s unique display of historical artifacts.
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 at the Exchange Building
15 W. Bank St.
Petersburg, VA 23803