Petersburg and the Atlantic World

Slavery and the Emergence of the Atlantic Economy (May 2007)

Petersburg was among the earliest North American settlements with a substantial African American population. It quickly became the largest slave trading port on the continent as well as home to the largest free black community in Virginia prior to the Civil War. Indeed, free and enslaved people of color comprised a slight majority of Petersburg’s population. The city served as a crucial hub of Atlantic trade (primarily for tobacco, but also in iron and textiles). As General George Washington noted immediately prior to the American Revolution, at least one-third of all American tobacco shipped internationally departed from Petersburg. The success of this vibrant economic center relied on African Americans in Petersburg and its surrounding rural counties who labored in agricultural and industrial endeavors. Before the Civil War, eighty-five percent of tobacco workers were black. After the Civil War, Petersburg became the major processing locale for almost all tobacco shipped abroad until the turn of the century. From field to sea-faring vessel, nearly all of this work was done by black laborers, inspectors, packers, stevedores, and watermen. As such, Petersburg developed a niche as an integral part of building an Atlantic World market economy.

This Atlantic hub economy spurred spin-off industries: to bring tobacco from North Carolina, Petersburg business-owners built the first interstate railroad. The five major railroad lines that ran through the city owned and leased slaves. Petersburg’s Atlantic and domestic slave trade yielded a diverse social, linguistic and cultural mix of West Africans, African Americans, English, and Anglo-Americans. People straight from West Africa—Angola, Ghana, and the Gold Coast primarily—sailed up the James River to feed the tobacco-growers’ hunger for labor until Virginia banned the international slave trade in 1774. Between 1775 and 1865, as tobacco depleted Virginia’s soils, over 350,000 slaves were sold in Petersburg’s slave market to owners in the Deep South. During this period, Southside Virginia planters, hoping to avoid agricultural bankruptcy, increasingly turned to exporting slaves, and used Petersburg as a distribution center.

As much as Petersburg’s tobacco industry benefited from the Atlantic World trade, dependence on this cash crop also spelled its eventual economic demise. In the 1970s, both tobacco and textile manufacturers had departed, leaving the city with no major economic base.


Focus Questions:


Christina Proenza-Coles: The Background of the Atlantic Economy and African Diaspora

Richard Chew: Tobacco and the Rise of the Atlantic Economy

Lucious Edwards: The African American Community and Petersburg’s Economic Development

Dulaney Ward: The Rise and Fall of Petersburg’s Tobacco Economy

Peter Wood: Using Local Histories to Understand Larger Patterns: The Hillsborough Case