Located on a peninsula in Petersburg, Virginia, near the north side of the Appomattox River, Pocahontas Island is one of the oldest African-American communities in the United States. The island was founded in the early 1700’s after the creation of the canal, and the island later became a peninsula after a flood in the 1970’s.
In 1732, the first slaves were brought to Petersburg to work on a tobacco farm owned by John Bolling, a colonist, farmer, and politician. By 1750, the land was divided and named Wittontown. It wasn’t until 1752 that Wittontown was given the official name of Pocahontas Island, in honor of the Native American princess. Later, in 1784, Pocahontas Island became part of the city of Petersburg.
Petersburg had the largest number of African Americans of any city in Virginia in the 19th century; more than half of its population consisted of African Americans, and 35% were freed slaves. Many of these slaves and freed slaves resided in Pocahontas island. In 1792, many African Americans left their homes in Prince George and established the Sandy Beach Baptist Church on the island, which remained there until 1818, when the church relocated. The church served as a black school in 1871 and General U.S. Grant’s headquarters during the siege of Petersburg in 1864.
On a recent weekend, I visited Pocahontas Island. As I entered the community, many old homes lines the streets. As we came to our first stop, we visited an old brick building that was boarded up. The building was constructed by John Wider in 1810 and owned by the Jarrett family, a free black family.
As we continued driving down the road, we came across a light teal house.
The house was owned by Alice Schlan and constructed in the 1800’s. The house was a part of the underground railroad, being a symbol for slaves of a chance of hope and freedom.
The next house we came across was a dark green house, bordered by a yellow trim. The house was owned by William N. Stephens and was in the family for four generations of freed slaves before being passed to Richard Stewart, the man who owns most of these historical homes and the historical museum in the neighborhood.
As we continued on the street, we came across the museum, and beside it was a pink and yellow house with multiple American flags on display. On the door was a drawing of Nat Turner, a slave who led a rebellion in Southampton County in Virginia on August 21, 1831, and who hid in the woods of Pocahontas Island when subsequently pursued by authorities. Residents of the island provided Turner with food and supplies. The house was constructed in 1837-38 by William Walthall, a mixed-raced man whose mother sold him into slavery because of the embarrassment of his African American heritage. The house was also used as stop for runaway slaves.
Pocahontas Island is a symbol of freedom that slaves saw as a refuge. It was a place where African Americans came together as a community, thrived, and prospered together.
All photos by Gabby Spurlock.