Local History in a Global Context

1732 first African Americans settle in Petersburg's Pocahontas Island, which will become one of the largest and earliest free black communities in North America.

1774 Petersburg's First Baptist Church is established making it the oldest black church in the region and among the first in the Atlantic World

1848 former Petersburg resident
Joseph Jenkins Roberts elected
first president of Liberia
1888 former Virginia State University president and US minister in Haiti, John Mercer Langston, elected Virginia's first African American Congressman

Once an axis of Native American trade, Petersburg, Virginia was a crucial center during the development of North America's earliest English colony and a vibrant antebellum commercial hub. Petersburg's success was largely the result of the efforts Petersburg's African American communities. Antebellum Petersburg was home to the largest free black population in Virginia and an even larger, and highly skilled, enslaved population. In the late 18th century, Petersburg residents established two of the first black churches in the United States. In the early 19th century, Petersburg residents played crucial roles in the founding of Liberia. During the Civil War, Petersburg was a crucial theater where the greatest number of black soldiers fought, where the Union was saved, and where US slavery was finally brought to an end. Towards the close of the 19th century, Petersburg developed the first public educational institutions for African Americans in the state as well as the nation's most successful bi-racial political coalition. The political, economic, and educational accomplishments of Petersburg’s African American communities in the 19th century continued forcefully in the 20th century during which Petersburg was a nexus of the Civil Rights Movement.








With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Petersburg and the Atlantic World project is a collaborative effort between Virginia State University and the Petersburg Public Library as well as educators, academics, archivists, and special project coordinators from the city of Petersburg, the National Park Service, the Virginia Historical Society, and other universities. The PAW project uses local history, specifically, Peterburg's African American history, to understand larger historical processes. The center is developing a teaching and research track for the VSU graduate history program and upper level history majors. The center facilitates the collaboration of VSU history faculty, students, and outside specialists and consolidates resources including secondary sources, original scholarship, and a catalogue of primary materials and archival holdings that shed light on Petersburg’s history and its interconnections with larger historical themes. The center offers researchers and students proximity to the public resources of Petersburg and its surroundings--including the Virginia Historical Society, VSU’s Special Collections, the Petersburg Public Library--and the oral histories, primary documents, and historic sites of the Petersburg community itself.

Petersburg and the Atlantic World. Virginia State University. Department of History. P.O. Box 9070. Petersburg, Virginia, 23806.