Pocahontas Island’s next lifetime
As the community mourns the loss of its greatest champion, a new leader and a revitalized vision emerge
A National Register of Historic Places marker identifies Pocahontas Island in Petersburg. (Samantha Willis/The Virginia Mercury)
Having devoted the latter part of his life to preserving Pocahontas Island in Petersburg, Richard A. Stewart, the island’s honorary mayor, is gone, dead at age 79. In the wake of the stalwart community historian’s death, though, the island lives on, primed for its second wind.
As it did during his lifetime, Stewart’s presence looms large on Pocahontas Island, a community of some 70 acres bordered on three sides by the Appomattox River, just over the bridge from mainland Petersburg. The island’s roots reach back to 1732, when enslaved people were first brought there to work in tobacco warehouses; by 1800, over 300 free Black people lived and worked there, making it one of the largest communities of its kind in America. Stewart owned and operated the island’s Black history museum, founded in 2006. The two-story yellow clapboard house trimmed in brown today is stuffed to the gills with artifacts he collected during his lifetime, including old-fashioned agricultural tools, 19th-century horseshoes, photographs and art, a Ku Klux Klan robe and a set of shackles likely used in the restraint of enslaved people.
Stewart’s funeral was observed at Petersburg’s Tabernacle Baptist Church on April 22. The day before, a balmy Friday afternoon, a “Sorry, we’re closed” sign hung above the green chalkboard where Stewart had previously scrawled the museum’s tour hours. It felt like he had just stepped away and would be back any minute, eager to educate anyone who’d listen about Pocahontas Island’s history.
That history is evident in more than just the museum. The island is home to the Jarratt House, built in 1820 and at one time a stop on the Underground Railroad; Stewart and other island residents led the push for the house to be preserved, rightly recognizing it as a portal to freedom for Blacks fleeing bondage in the Petersburg area before the Civil War.
Stewart also consistently spoke of the area’s days as a manufacturing and railroad hub, and as a haven for free Black tradespeople, artisans and farmers in antebellum Virginia.
Stewart’s neighbor Dorothy Kelley, who has lived on the island for over 50 years with her husband and his family — who were born and raised there — said the museum was one of several buildings Stewart owned on the island.
“And he made sure that grass stayed cut, too,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen with the museum now.”
“What happens next?” is a fair question to ask, both about the museum and about the island itself.
Over the years, the number of residents living on Pocahontas Island has steadily shrunk down to about 100 people, Kelley said. Several of the homes there are dilapidated and in need of repair; some stand vacant. There are no employment prospects on the island, and nearby Petersburg faces a 10.5% annual unemployment rate.
“A lot of the younger people are gone; we don’t have as many children around,” said Kelley, 76, but spry and chatty as she led me around the island on an impromptu tour.
She showed me the community’s tiny chapel, which had to be rebuilt after a tornado tore through the island in August 1993, damaging or destroying 80% of the homes there. She introduced me to Mrs. Mary Bragg Cox, 98, the daughter of a man who, before Stewart took up Pocahontas Island’s banner, advocated for the paving of the neighborhood’s streets and the laying of its sidewalks. Cox later donated land to create a park in her father’s honor, up the street from her home. She nodded in agreement as Kelley told me what she sees as the solution to sustaining the island for the next generation: “What we need is for families, for people to come back here, help us build this place up again.”
Enter Marlo Green.
Last month, Green broke ground on the first in a series of homes she’s developing on the island, slated to be priced right for area families looking to settle down. A certified public accountant and first-time developer who works at Virginia State University, Green has lived in Petersburg since 2016 and believes the homes will simultaneously bring more people to Pocahontas and help local Black families build wealth through homeownership.
Her vision is to “help close the wealth gap locally and bring more resources to the island,” she said as she showed me the first home of the project, which she will live in when it is completed in another few months; as we spoke, workers were nailing on its siding.
Green began the effort by purchasing an acre plot from the city and plans to buy more soon. Before she started, she introduced herself to her future neighbors on the island, including Kelley, who said she feels “completely positive” about the undertaking.
Another neighbor took a little more convincing.
“One of the first people I met was Mr. Stewart. He was kind of skeptical because he had seen a lot of people come to the island with a lot of hopes and dreams, but nothing had been done,” Green said.
One such dream was the much-hyped Pocahontas Island Neighborhood Plan, a complex set of social, economic and aesthetic goals for the island with suggested strategies on how to meet them prepared by the Wilder School of Government at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2014. Residents participated in the creation of that and other plans but have yet to see much of it brought to reality, Green explained.
Despite his initial caution, Green said, Stewart came to support her vision for revitalizing the island and was working to help her realize it before his death.
As Green’s project unfolds, other recent developments are reasons to hope Pocahontas Island and the surrounding area will soon see better days. Last year Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced the “Partnership for Petersburg,” a set of 42 initiatives designed to boost the economic and social outlook of the city that is no stranger to struggle. Though some correctly pointed out that most of these initiatives were already underway thanks to General Assembly action or federal funds, a bipartisan group of state and local leaders welcomed the fresh attention Youngkin’s plan placed on Petersburg.
Virginia Business reported last year that work had begun to make Petersburg “a pharmaceutical manufacturing hub and ingredient reserve, bringing economic investment, jobs and ancillary investment to the long-distressed area.” A maternal and infant health center opened in Petersburg a few weeks ago, offering support to expecting and new parents as well as early childhood education opportunities. Multiple efforts are underway to fight food insecurity in the area and teach kids how to grow their food. Green is also creating a nonprofit to support the future renovation of homes in need on the island.
“It will mean so much to have our elders age in place more comfortably,” said Green, who grew up in public housing in Henrico County. “I saw firsthand how neighborhoods like Church Hill and Jackson Ward [in Richmond] will gentrify and push out the residents that have been there all along. That’s the polar opposite of what we’re trying to do here.”
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