Petersburg and the Atlantic World


Pre-1645 The Occaneechi Trail, a major trading path for Native American exchange, ended at the Appomattox River.  This hub of exchange for Native Americans was the future site of Petersburg.

1645 The English established Fort Henry, future site of Petersburg, 60 miles west of the Jamestown colony founded in 1607.

1732 The first African Americans settled in what would become Petersburg. John Bolling, the great-grandson of John Rolfe and Pocahontas was a successful tobacco merchant who built a tobacco warehouse on the point of a peninsula that became known as Petersburg’s Pocahontas Island neighborhood. The tobacco warehouse was erected with the labor of enslaved workers, and free blacks from the area came to work in the warehouse as sorters, packers, and handlers of local tobacco slated for domestic and foreign markets. 

1733 William Byrd II officially established a permanent colony in Petersburg.

1745 Petersburg was incorporated.  From now until the end of the eighteenth century, Petersburg was rising as one of the leading tobacco markets of the Atlantic World.  This tobacco market depended not only on the agricultural labor of enslaved African Americans, but also on the skilled labor of enslaved and free blacks who worked in the tobacco factories and related industries like transport and shipping.

1774 African Americans in Petersburg organized the First Baptist Church, the oldest black church in the region and among the first in the Atlantic World.  A second black church, Gillfield Baptist Church, was established in the Petersburg area shortly thereafter.  Black churches were also being established in South Carolina, Georgia, the British West Indies, Nova Scotia, and Sierra Leone during this time.

1776 The American Revolution began.  By this time, Petersburg was exporting 1/3 of the nation’s tobacco.  Pension records show that several African Americans from Petersburg served in the war.

1800 Petersburg, in particular its black community of skilled artisans, became a hub of Gabriel's Conspiracy based in Richmond.

1819 A surge of black women entered Petersburg’s tax roles; by 1820 two fifths of Petersburg’s black landowners were women, several of whom acquired enslaved loved ones or laborers that year.

1829 Joseph Jenkins Roberts, who had inherited his father’s boat business, moved his family from Pocahontas Island to Liberia, where he operated a profitable trading firm with another free black citizen of Petersburg, William Colson. Roberts, Colson, and Company imported and exported merchandise between Monrovia, Philadelphia, and New York City. 

1831 The Petersburg-Roanoke Railroad was established; it was among the first in the nation and the first of four lines in antebellum Petersburg.  Petersburg quickly transformed from a commercial center based on maritime transport into a primary rail hub.

1842 Joseph Jenkins Roberts served as Liberia’s first black governor under the aegis of the American Colonization Society. 

1848 Joseph Jenkins Roberts was elected the first president of Liberia’s independent republic.  He achieved international recognition for the new nation through international diplomatic visits.  After leaving office Roberts served as the first president of Liberia College until his reelection to the country’s presidency in the 1870s.  His brother, John Wright Roberts, a Petersburg native, became Liberia’s first Methodist bishop.

1860 Petersburg's Pocahontas Island, the site of North America's earliest free black settlement was now one of the country's largest.

1861-1865 The American Civil War was waged and battles in and around Petersburg often fought by US Colored Troops were crucial to its outcome.  Of the sixteen African Americans awarded the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, fourteen received the honor as a result of their actions at New Market Heights during the Siege of Petersburg. 

1868 Former Petersburg resident, Elizabeth Keckley, published Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave and Four in the White House. She was Mary Todd Lincoln's personal seamstress and confidante.

1869 Central State Hospital was founded. In 1885 the hospital moved to its present location on land which the city of Petersburg donated to the state. This was the first hospital in America dedicated exclusively to African American mental health.

1877 William Mahone, based in Petersburg, founded the Readjustor Party, one of the most successful bi-racial political coalitions in US history.  The Readjustors and their black and white constituents and politicians dominated Virginia politics until 1883.

1880 Virginia’s first publicly-supported black high school, Peabody High School, was chartered.

1882 Petersburg’s black leaders pushed the state government to charter the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (later Virginia State University), the first fully state-supported, four-year institution of higher learning for blacks in the United States.

1885 After serving eight years as consul-general in Haiti, John Mercer Langston became president of Virginia State University.

1888 John Mercer Langston was elected the first African American Congressman from Virginia.

1890 After returning from missionary work in West Africa, while serving as the pastor of the Gillfield Baptist Church (1865-1900) Henry Williams established the Bethany Baptist Sunday School Association.

1898. Petersburg native and former slave, Major William Henry John, the highest ranking officer in the 6th Virginia Volunteer Infantry, led American forces in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

1922 Scholar and activist Luther Porter Jackson joined Virginia State University’s History Department where he served as a professor and department chairman until 1950.  Jackson’s scholarship on Petersburg’s African American history is unparalleled, and his efforts to develop the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History are largely under-recognized.  Jackson was among the nation’s most important African American academics and organizers, particularly in the 1930s and 40s.

1957 Ministering to the Gillfield Baptist Church (1953-1960) and working closely with Martin Luther King, Jr., Wyatt Tee Walker founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and served as its executive director from 1960 to 1964.

1965 In a speech at Virginia State University, deemed by Coretta Scott King as among his most important, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke out against the Vietnam War.

1984 After serving as an officer in the Army, a clinical psychologist at Central State Hospital, and a professor at Virginia State University, Florence Farley became the first black female mayor of a Virginia city when she was elected mayor of Petersburg.