"This is the smallest hidden treasure of history in the state of Virginia." -- Richard A. Stewart, Resident Historian, Honorary Mayor
PETERSBURG -- Richard A. Stewart has championed Petersburg's Pocahontas Island for years.
He is the island's resident historian and honorary mayor. He operates his own museum.
The island -- it is actually a peninsula that sits on the banks of the Appomattox River -- bills itself as the oldest black community in America.
Thanks to its recent inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, it is now getting long-overdue recognition, Stewart said.
"This is the smallest hidden treasure of history in the state of Virginia," he recently told a Times-Dispatch reporter during a tour of his museum and the island.
Pocahontas Island was originally the domain of American Indians, but the first community there was established by white settlers in 1749.
Between the 1830s and 1850s, it became a predominantly black community that was home to many freed slaves, among them Stewart's ancestors.
"A Stewart is a Stewart. I don't care if you're separated by the color of your skin. Only one Stewart family came here, and it mushroomed from there," he said.
Stewart, 63, says the majority of the island's 91 residents can trace their lineage to free blacks who occupied the site centuries ago.
His museum contains photographs and documents that catalog the genealogy of some of those families, as well as Americana that dates to the days of slavery.
Stewart sees the world as anything but black and white, and his museum collection reflects that through items that highlight the role of blacks in the Confederate Army, sometimes to the dismay of visitors.
"It's a part of history, and I'm going to tell the truth," he said of his collection. "I don't paint it good, and I don't paint it bad."
Using grant money, Petersburg officials brought in archaeologists during the past year to mine the island's history, said city preservation planner Victoria A. Hauser.
Among the historic sites discovered were an old railroad depot used to transport soldiers during the Civil War and other properties of historic significance.
A decaying Witten Street house that sits across the road from the island's museum was part of the Underground Railroad network that helped courier slaves to the North, Stewart said.
It was through the research process that the island in September came to be included in the Virginia Landmarks Register, and then this month accepted into the national registry, said Randy Jones, spokesman for the state Department of Historic Resources.
"The department is making an effort . . . in recent years to recognize the full diversity of Virginia's history, which includes African-Americans, Indians, women and other minorities including Mennonites in the [Shenandoah] Valley," Jones said.
Today the island has about 60 homes, a few industrial businesses and Petersburg's sewage treatment plant.
At its height, in the 1950s and'60s, Stewart estimates the island's population approached 1,700.
That number had dwindled to about 200 residents when a tornado ripped through the area in August 1993 and leveled many island properties.
Despite that devastation, Stewart sees the tornado as a force that focused attention on the island.
But he worries the historic designation and talk of dredging the Appomattox signals that some island land will be used for riverfront development that will price elderly residents of limited means out of the community.