Preserving Petersburg’s African-American Past

Yesterday I spent the day in Petersburg conducting the first round of interviews for the final section of my Crater study.  In the morning I interviewed Richard Stewart, who founded the Stewart-Pocahontas Museum located out of his home on Pocahontas Island in 2003, followed by Virginia Delegate and former Petersburg Mayor, Rosalyn Dance.  Over the next few weeks I will be interviewing a number of people in the Petersburg area, including public officials, private citizens, and NPS personnel.

I thoroughly enjoyed meeting and talking with Richard Stewart.  He is a passionate advocate for black history in the Petersburg area and is well known within the community.  Stewart is recently retired after 40 years in the military.  When I pulled up to the house Stewart was talking with a gentleman from up the street.  We began our discussion on the porch, but quickly moved inside which made it easier for me to record the interview.  The interior walls are covered with old photographs, newspapers and every space has been converted to address a different theme of local black history.  Following the interview I learned that the upstairs was equally adorned with artifacts of various kinds.  Stewart’s voice is warm and welcoming, which was ideal for someone conducting his first interview.

We talked about a wide range of topics beginning with his childhood and his experiences in the public high school.  I asked Stewart about what he was taught in his American history classes and whether local black history was a prominent feature within the curriculum.  He remembered learning about important black leaders such as Harriet Tubman and others from his teachers, but reminded me that his textbooks included nothing about topics related to black history.  The textbooks were passed down from segregated white schools in the area.  I was struck by his comments, however, regarding the kinds of black individuals stressed by his teachers.  Stewart suggested that there was an emphasis on mulatto or light-skinned African-Americans, which left him wondering whether a dark-skinned black individual (like himself) had ever accomplished anything important.  He remembers learning very little about the Civil War, including emancipation, and the contributions of African Americans.  At one point he gestured in the direction of one of the more popular images of the surrender at Appomattox on his wall.  The amicable account of the surrender was easily recalled followed by the dispersement of the two armies.  And that was the end of the war.  The story of Reconstruction was clearly a sore topic with Stewart.  He remembers being taught the traditional story of carpetbaggers who came down to the South to undue the bonds of friendship that had been so painstakingly constructed before the war.  Stewart wanted me to understand, however, that it was only after reading more about the period that he understood the inaccuracies of what he was taught.

I was not prepared to hear what he had to say regarding his earliest memories of the Crater, and if that was all he had to say the 90 minute drive would have been worthwhile.  Stewart recalled hearing about a massive explosion followed by a bloody battle, but that was all he knew about it.  I asked if he had ever visited the battlefield as a child.  Stewart’s response is very instructive.  He said it was impossible for a black man to visit the battlefield because of the imaginary line that stretched along what is now the Crater Road which divides Blandford and the rest of the area.  In short, the area around the Crater was understood as white only.  Stewart never visited the battlefield until the 1970s when he used the trails for jogging.  In addition to the realities of public segregation Stewart suggested that based on what he knew the battlefield didn’t hold anything that could give his life meaning.  Only later did he understand otherwise and this applied also to Blandford Cemetery where he later learned that a number of African Americans were buried.

Stewart also touched on the theme of black Confederates.  He is known for his involvement with local chapters of the SCV and argues that some local blacks did “serve” with Confederate units.  The issue came up a number of times so I finally asked him to explain what he means by “serve.”  Did he mean that they fought on the battlefields in individual regiments or did he mean something broader that would acknowledge the many capacities in which they worked?    Stewart tied his response to a point that he made earlier in reference to the substantial free black population of Petersburg and Pocahontas Island in particular.  Stewart himself claims to be a descendant of free blacks.  The point he was making, which is an interesting one, is that there was a great deal of interaction on all levels between whites and blacks.  That interaction created strong ties going both ways and when the war began, according to Stewart, local blacks identified with their communities.  At one point he suggested that blacks would have died for their white neighbors.  From what I can tell Stewart was not making the political argument that so many within the heritage sphere tend to make, the goal of it being to distance the Confederate experience from issues of race and slavery.  Stewart was making a more positive claim about the way he believes local blacks identified with their surroundings.  When asked about the service of African Americans in the Union army Stewart was quick to acknowledge their sacrifice and took the opportunity to suggest that not nearly enough has been done to promote their service at the Crater.  Before I could move on he also reminded me that blacks had served in the Revolution and later pointed to a long list on one of his wall of individual names from the area as proof.  He wanted to know why their service had yet to be recognized.

We talked for about an hour.  Towards the end Stewart suggested that now is the most opportune moment for talking about and promoting black history in the Petersburg area.  He referred to the attention to public schools along with the change in the make-up of the city council and local government.  When asked about the National Park Service Stewart was quite optimistic and suggested that they are on the right track in terms of programming and outreach.  Stewart hopes that Petersburg will be able to use its rich history to bring about “peace and harmony” within the community as well as to promote the region as an important historical destination.

Recent news items about Stewart’s museum can be found here and here.

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2 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Jul 17, 2007 @ 21:09

    I agree with you. What was most impressive, and at times touching, was his emotional connection to all of it. He loves his community and understands the importance of history to its survival.

  • matthew mckeon Jul 17, 2007 @ 10:13

    I think men like Stewart are in a great American tradition of amateur historians, maintaining material culture and documents that might otherwise be scattered or lost. Great post.

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