Pocahontas Island, Petersburg
The town of Pocahontas, established in 1752, became part of Petersburg in 1784. By 1860, more members of the city’s large free African American community lived here than in any other neighborhood and was the center of the second largest free black community in the South. Residents worked in tobacco factories and on wharves fueled the bustling Appomattox River trade and likely used their access to the river to help enslaved blacks escape via the Underground Railroad. After the Civil War, Pocahontas attracted many emancipated African Americans.
The transformation of Pocahontas from a typical “white” river town in the mid-eighteenth century to a densely populated free black community a century later occurred mostly during the three decades preceding the Civil War. In the years following the American Revolution, white Virginians took at least some of the rhetoric of liberty seriously, and a wave of manumissions occurred before 1800. White Virginians changed their attitudes toward free blacks as their numbers increased, and were expressed in the increasingly restrictive laws passed by the General Assembly. This helped to drive free blacks to Pocahontas for reasons relating to safety, prosperity, and a measure of independence.
Pocahontas was, for free blacks, the center of a vibrant if not especially prosperous community. Many of the black women of Pocahontas worked: nurses, laborers, seamstresses, washerwomen, and stemmers. There were male laborers, fishermen, sailors, coopers, carpenters (including two apprentices), cartmen, watermen, peddlers, shoemakers, waiters, draymen, and barbers, caulkers, ditchers, fishmongers, porters, train hands, and upholsterers.
Because the very nature of the Southern branch of the Underground Railroad required secrecy, there is no direct evidence suggesting that Pocahontas was a “station” along one of its many “rail lines.” Other factors, however, suggest that it may have been a center of such activity. The neighborhood’s riverside location, its function as a “port” for Petersburg, the fact that many free blacks there were engaged in sailing and fishing, and the availability of rail transportation, also would have made it an appealing “stop” on the way north, since port and river towns were well-known as safe havens for escaping slaves. In 1858 an incident known as the Keziah Affair took place, when five slaves escaped from Pocahontas Island onto a ship called the Keziah. The slaves were found hidden inside when the Keziah ran aground in the Appomattox River. The ship’s captain was arrested and found guilty of on five counts of abduction, He served 6 years of a 40-year sentence – his time being cut short due to the end of the Civil War.
In 1860, the population of Pocahontas was 510, with 395 free blacks (77 percent) and 119 whites (23 percent). Although other parts of Petersburg had predominantly free black neighborhoods Pocahontas was a rarity in Virginia until the Jim Crow era of the later nineteenth century: a racially segregated, predominately black community.
Post-war, newly freed slaves migrated to Pocahontas in large numbers, drawn by the black community already there and looking for employment opportunities away from the plantation and the farm. The neighborhood, however, suffered the same sort of economic collapse in commerce and trade as did the rest of Petersburg, Virginia, and the South generally. Overcrowding and unemployment were rampant in Pocahontas. The Freedmen’s Bureau (Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees), established by Congress on March 4, 1865, assisted by establishing schools, helping blacks find work, arbitrating labor disputes, and investigating claims of unfair treatment.
Today, a quiet residential neighborhood where many of the residents are descendants of the earlier free-blacks, Pocahontas Island continues as a representative of the African American community in Petersburg and their long involvement in the history of this city.
Editor’s note: Want to learn about the African American experience from the arrival of the first Africans in 1619 to present day? Mark your calendar for the Determined: The 400-year Struggle for Black Equality exhibition.