Petersburg and the Atlantic World


War, Reconstruction, and Civil Rights, 1861-1960s (May 2007)

During the Civil War, Petersburg was a strategic center for both the Confederacy and the Union and an important battle site. During the final year of the war black troops took a major role in the Eastern theatre and fought in Petersburg’s famous Battle of the Crater. Black troops were crucial to the capture of Richmond and Petersburg in April 1865; black soldiers pursued Lee from Petersburg to his final surrender at the Appomattox Court House.

During Reconstruction, a former Confederate general from Petersburg formed the Readjustor Party, a biracial political machine that initiated numerous reforms benefiting both blacks and poor whites in the region and paved the way for the founding of Virginia State University.

Petersburg remained a center for African American educational excellence, professional development, and political activity well into the 20th century. In the 1930s and 40s, in addition to his work as an historian of free blacks in antebellum Petersburg, VSU professor Luther P. Jackson was an influential voice and pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement; he was also a founder of the first African American studies’ professional group, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and Culture.

Petersburg residents continued to play important roles in the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s. Pastor Vernon Johns moved to Petersburg after Alabama racists ran him out of Dexter Avenue Baptist church in Montgomery; 26-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. then had to fill Johns’ shoes. Johns became a mentor for several black ministers in Petersburg, including Wyatt T. Walker who in 1960 became the Executive Secretary of Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. VSU students integrated the Petersburg Public Library and Thalheimer’s Department Store and participated in the Freedom Rides. Many whites in Petersburg allied with officials from nearby Prince Edward County (the site of a five-year school closing to avoid the implementation of the Brown decision) in groups that resembled ‘White Citizens Councils.’ Despite formidable obstacles, the city integrated by 1972, largely due to its core of faith-based freedom activists. VSU’s history department is engaged in a multiyear project with the City of Petersburg to document and publicize its civil rights activism through the Petersburg Civil Rights Oral History Project.


Focus Questions:


Paul Alkebulan: From the End of Readjustment to Brown vs Board of Education: The Virginia Teachers' Association and the Virginia Voters' League

Richard Chew:

Dulaney Ward:

Wesley Hogan: Petersburg and the Civil Rights Movemement

Jane Dailey: