Petersburg and the Atlantic World


Petersburg, Virginia is a forgotten historic town in a state that appears obsessive about its historic towns. Once an axis of Native American trade routes, the area served as a crucial center during the development the nation’s earliest English colony and as a commercial hub during the antebellum period. Early on, Petersburg developed one of the largest African American populations in North America, and Petersburg’s substantial black communities played important roles in the area’s remarkable developments. However, this history is largely understudied and little known. During the colonial and antebellum period Petersburg was a vibrant cultural and economic center firmly lodged in the Atlantic economy and home to the largest free black population in Virginia. The political, economic, and educational accomplishments of Petersburg’s African American communities before the Civil War, including their role in founding of some of the nation’s first black churches and the development of Liberia, continued forcefully during Reconstruction and the first half of the twentieth century. In the wake of economic and social changes of the latter half of the twentieth century, Petersburg now suffers from severe economic and educational distress. 

Our project to document and make accessible Petersburg’s African American history has three distinct purposes, each with scholarly, pedagogical, and political significance. First, we will provide a model for using local African American history as a window into understanding larger historical patterns and global processes. Petersburg’s African American history is an apt case study exemplifying that one cannot understand the local without a broader context and that the broader context cannot be rendered truly visible without the local experience. The second purpose is to bridge the gap between academic and public history. This will include both making scholarly historical findings more accessible and relevant as well as integrating academic knowledge with a public history that frequently lacks scholarly depth. The final purpose is to use Petersburg history, and our focus on African Americans, as an innovative experiment in integrating different strands of history into a more comprehensive and insightful historical synthesis. Petersburg is a significant national historical site, yet historic sites tend to focus on only one of many historical aspects (English settlers in Jamestown; Monticello as Jefferson’s home, etc.) at the expense of other historical actors and a more comprehensive understanding of the past.

The Petersburg and the Atlantic World project is a collaborative effort between educators, academics, archivists, and special project coordinators of Virginia State University, the VSU Graduate Program in History, the Petersburg Public Library, the city of Petersburg, and the Institute for the Study of Race Relations to develop a program on African American history in the context of the Atlantic World using Petersburg as a case study. The center is developing a teaching and research track for the VSU graduate history program and upper level history majors. The center will facilitate the collaboration of VSU history faculty, students, and outside specialists and consolidate 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. These resources will help to fill the wide gaps in Petersburg history in collaborating institutions. The center will offer 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. The goal of the program is to provide original pedagogical and research opportunities to strengthen Petersburg’s educational institutions and establish a center of study and historic preservation that will help to revitalize the area.