No man is an island, except maybe for Richard Stewart
by Gregg MacDonald, Staff Writer
On Pocahontas Island, just across the Appomattox River from historic Petersburg, Va., sits a yellow house filled with 8,500 years of history. Inside, you can often find the honorary mayor of the island giving free historical tours to anyone who’s interested.
In 2002, “Mayor” Richard Stewart, a U.S. Army veteran and Pocahontas Island native, purchased the 1,800- square-foot home, built in 1929, to establish the Pocahontas Island Black History Museum.
He began filling it with artifacts supplied by local residents and relatives of former residents.
Today, the museum houses what is likely one of the most comprehensive historical collections of both general and localized African American culture in Virginia.
Stewart says it has been visited by politicians, celebrities and sports stars, some of whose photos and handwritten letters now hang on the walls. “This island is sacred to many people, and I’m just doing my best to keep its history alive,” he says.
According to Stewart, Pocahontas Island was originally a riverfront port that became its own political entity around 1749, about the same time that boundaries were being drawn between Petersburg and Chesterfield County. The town of Pocahontas followed in 1752.
The 70-acre island was incorporated as part of Petersburg in 1784 and, by 1860, it was already known as one of the oldest free-Black communities in the United States. Access to the James and Appomattox rivers, and a railroad that connected the island to Richmond and beyond, made it a thriving community during the Industrial Revolution and Civil War, and into the early 20th century.
City and census records show that in 1800, most of Petersburg’s 310 free Black residents lived there among enslaved Blacks and a small white population. Stewart says that in 1850, 70 slaves were emancipated by a prominent local slaveholder and that most of them remained on the island. “But long before that, the island was inhabited by Native Americans,” he says.
“Archeological evidence shows they lived here as far back as 6500 B.C.; part of the museum is dedicated to them.”
PRESERVING HISTORICAL EVIDENCE
Stewart says he believes that all African American history, good and bad, should be preserved and that he disagrees with those who want to overlook or downplay some of the more dismal aspects of it. As such, his museum houses some controversial pieces, such as lynching photos and a genuine 19th-century Ku Klux Klan uniform. “If you don’t preserve proof of these historical atrocities, how can future generations ever learn from them?” he asks.
Each room of the museum is lined floor to ceiling with African American artifacts spanning the historical gamut, from authentic slave shackles to handpainted portraits of Barack Obama.
Stewart says he is happy to hear that the Juneteenth National Independence Day holiday that President Joe Biden signed into law last year will be treated as a full-fledged federal holiday this month. This will include the U.S. Postal Service, which was unable to comply last year because the timing of the enactment, two days prior to the holiday itself, was too short for post offices to close in observance of the new federal holiday.
“I commend Juneteenth being observed by every department of the federal government, and by the entire country, as a national holiday this year,” Stewart says.
Juneteenth, which commemorates federal enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas on June 19, 1865, is widely celebrated as the end of slavery in the South, and a celebration of African American culture in general.
“I can tell you that locally, here on Pocahontas Island, residents celebrated the end of slavery in four stages,” Stewart says. “When the Emancipation Proclamation was made, when Lee surrendered at Appomattox, on Juneteenth and finally with the ratification of the 13th Amendment.”
► To learn more about the Pocahontas Island Black History Museum, visit vimeo.com/512784597.
One in a series of holiday-inspired destinations in co-op country.
This month: Juneteenth.