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Petersburg and the Atlantic World

 

Petersburg was a hub well before the English landed in Virginia. Located along the fall line, this area was a center of trade for Virginia’s native peoples. Petersburg’s vital role in colonial history is due to its location near the junction of the James and Appomattox Rivers, a node in the Atlantic economy and the point of entry for the vast majority of enslaved peoples coming to Virginia. Bermuda Hundred, the settlement adjacent to Petersburg through which "by the 1760's nearly all Africans who arrived in Virginia landed"1 was historically the site of a principal Appomattox town prior to English settlement, after which it became the first incorporated community in English America 1614.

Before the arrival of the Mayflower, the first Africans to settle in a mainland English colony arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, where they were purchased, probably as indentured servants, by John Rolfe. Rolfe had introduced a West Indian strain of tobacco to Virginia in 1612, germinating the first successful cash crop in North America. The first Africans in Anglo-America labored alongside English servants in tobacco fields; upon completing their service many purchased property and bond laborers for themselves. In 1731, John Bolling, grandson of John Rolfe and Pocahontas, built tobacco warehouses and brought the first African American enslaved laborers to what became known as Petersburg. By the time of the American Revolution--in which several African Americans from Petersburg served--Petersburg was exporting 1/3 of the nation’s tobacco.

Antebellum Petersburg was an economic hub in the Atlantic economy as an entrepot of slaves and tobacco as well as a center of production for flour, textiles, and iron. The city’s successful market and industrial economy undergirded by slavery and tobacco, provided opportunities for slaves to hire themselves to tobacco factories (in which 99% of the workers were black); many enslaved workers were able to purchase their freedom. A large free black population—proportionally the largest free black population in the state of Virginia—and an even larger enslaved population supported Petersburg’s vibrant economy. By 1800 many of Petersburg’s residents of color lived in Pocahontas Island where freemen might earn their livings on the water or as small business owners. In the early 19th century, Petersburg developed one of the most industrialized economies in the upper South based on the skilled labor of enslaved as well as free black and white workers. We wish to document the experience of free blacks and slaves in Petersburg in light of the experiences of other Afro-Atlantic communities as well as the tradition of free blacks in maritime culture throughout the Atlantic.

In the late 18th century Petersburg residents established two of the first black churches in the U.S., paralleling the concurrent establishment of the first black churches in Georgia, South Carolina, Jamaica, the British West Indies, Nova Scotia, and Sierra Leone. Petersburg’s First Baptist Church, organized in 1774, is the oldest black church in the region, and Petersburg’s Gillfield Baptist Church followed closely. While free blacks and slaves established Gillfield, the congregation united with the Portsmouth Association, an organization of white Baptists, in 1815 in a remarkable example of antebellum racial integration. First Baptist housed the area’s first African American school and provided training for leaders in education, business, and politics. After returning from missionary work in West Africa, Henry Williams, a religious leader and political activist, served as the pastor of Gillfield from 1865-1900. The Bethany Baptist Sunday School Association he established in 1890 still exists. We wish to document Petersburg’s historic role in the establishment of black churches in the U.S., understand how this development intersects with simultaneous developments in other parts of the Atlantic, and analyze the historical connections between Petersburg’s churches, economics, education, and politics.

In 1800 numerous Petersburg residents, influenced by the events and migrations of the Haitian Revolution, were involved with Gabriel's Rebellion. Four free black residents of Petersburg were arrested for conspiracy but the charges were ultimately dropped. In 1831 another black Virginian, Nat Turner, organized an insurrection against slavery in Southampton County. "The first report of the Turner revolt was sent in the form of a letter...to the Governor of Virginia....sent by way of Petersburg." A crucial way in which Petersburg residents challenged the institution of slavery was by serving as a node in the covert system of the Underground Railroad, helping to guide and shelter enslaved persons seeking passage to the North. Petersburg's Pocahontas Island and Epps Plantation were active parts of that network.

In the early 19th century, Petersburg residents developed ties with West African nations as missionaries, teachers, businessmen, and leaders. Petersburg’s Joseph Jenkins Roberts served as Liberia’s first black governor, the first president of Liberia College, and the first president of the Liberian nation. His brother served as Liberia’s first black bishop. Roberts’ career began as a successful merchant in business with another prominent black resident of Petersburg, William Colson. The trading firm of Roberts, Colson, and Company imported and exported merchandise between Monrovia, Philadelphia, and New York. Nelson Elebeck was another Petersburg resident engaged in business in Liberia.2  Additional Petersburg residents who shaped the formation of Liberia include Augutus Curtis and Harriet Graves Waring. George Parker of Petersburg purchased himself “for the purpose of going to Liberia where he might become a missionary.”3 While many of Virginia’s former slaves settled in Liberia, some sought out Petersburg upon manumission. Isaac, a former slave of Thomas Jefferson and a skilled metal smith, chose to settle in Petersburg after he left Monticello.4

Some might argue the Civil War was won in Petersburg and thus U.S. slavery ended here. Petersburg was a crucial, indeed pivotal, theater (of the sixteen black Americans awarded the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, fourteen received it for service at Petersburg). In 1869, a former Confederate hospital was designated as a mental health facility for African Americans. Renamed Central State Hospital, located in Petersburg, this was the first African American hosptial in the world. In 1873 and 1875 Petersburg's black residents organized two black batallions for the Virginia Volunteer Infantry that were nationalized with the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, and led by Petersburg native and former slave, Major William Henry Johnson.

 

Despite antebellum prohibitions, Petersburg’s Beneficial Society of the Free People of Color ran a school for African Americans. during Reconstruction Petersburg developed the first public educational institutions for African Americans in the state: Peabody High School, Virginia’s first publicly-supported black high school was chartered in 1870; twelve years later Petersburg’s black leaders had pushed the state government to charter the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (later Virginia State University), the first state-supported, four-year institution of higher learning for blacks in the U.S. Unlike most early black colleges, VSU’s faculty and Board of Visitors were of African descent. John Mercer Langston became VSU’s president in 1885, after serving eight years in Haiti as the U.S. president's minister and U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic. In 1888 Langston (the great uncle of poet Langston Hughes) was the first African American elected to Congress from Virginia. During this period Petersburg was home to the Readjustor Party, one of the most successful bi-racial political parties in U.S. history. After Reconstruction, Petersburg contiued to be a site of political mobilization throughout the 20th century, exemplified by the Virginia Voters League.

In the 1930s and 40s, Luther P. Jackson, a Virginia State professor, wrote several historical accounts of Petersburg’s free people of color. He helped to found the first African American studies professional group, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and Culture. Jackson was also an influential political activist and forerunner of the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1950s and 60s Petersburg residents played crucial roles in the Civil Rights movement, and VSU professors and students made significant scholarly contributions to African American historiography. LIFE magazine called it, "The Second Siege in Petersburg." Wyatt Tee Walker served as minister of Gillfield from 1953-1960, as Chief of Staff to Dr. Martin Luther King, and played a prominent role in the Civil Rights movement on a national and international level. Martin Luther King delivered one of his most historically significant speeches, his first to speak out on the Vietnam War, on the campus of Virginia State University. We wish to document the many efforts of Petersburg’s religious leaders, political activists, scholars, and students to raise consciousness and fight for civil rights. We also wish to analyze Petersburg’s Civil War, Reconstruction, and Civil Rights histories in light of the struggles for abolition, liberation, and social justice throughout the Atlantic.

1 Allan Kulikoff, Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, University of North Carolina Press, 1986, p. 336.

2 Luther P. Jackson, “The Free Negroes of Petersburg,” Journal of Negro History, Vol. 12, No. 3 July 1927. p. 372.

3 Luther P. Jackson, “Manumission in Certain Virginia Cities.”  Journal of Negro History. Vol. 15, No. 3, July 1930 p. 307.

4 Rayford W. Logan, ed., Memoirs of a Monticello Slave.  University of Virginia Press, 1951.