Pocahontas Island is a peninsula located within the city limits of Petersburg, Va., and it is said to be one of the oldest black communities in the United States. Richard Stewart, the unofficial mayor of the town, has dedicated his life and earnings to preserve what he calls a "very sacred place." (Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post)

He roams from house to house along the quiet streets of this little neighborhood, giving voice to its history and spirits. The collection of modest homes, tucked between an empty lumber factory and an abandoned rail yard, doesn’t look like a rare and haunted place.

But in Richard Stewart’s eyes, Pocahontas Island is alive with an unexpectedly dramatic past. Using a black magic marker, Stewart scrawls the words of 12 generations of ancestors on old porch rails, doorways and window frames.

“Ain’t no looking back master I’m at the promised land.”

“1861-65 we were called black confederate”

“Nat Turner father sold less than a mile from here”

Pocahontas Island — 70 acres in the middle of the Appomattox River next to downtown Petersburg — is home to one of the oldest African American communities in the United States. Pocahontas became a town in 1752, a center of tobacco trade and, later, shipping and railroads. White people lived here, too, but the community always had African Americans at its heart.

“The richness of the soil and its history — can’t no money replace that. This is my holy land,” Stewart said. “This is my place.”

A retired federal worker, Stewart, 72, has used his pension and a little family money to buy several properties on Pocahontas Island and create a homespun historical park. It’s solitary, back-breaking work. He cuts the grass, patches walls, even reframes collapsed roofs. He installed a Black History Museum in one of his houses, and he painted the others in eye-catching colors, festooning them with flags to catch attention.

Richard Stewart is the proprietor of the Pocahontas Island Black History Museum on Pocahontas Island, Va. On display are these shackles that were used during the slave trade years in nearby Petersburg, Va. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

If his work seems a little frantic, that’s because Stewart is trying to capture something even well-funded museums struggle to conjure: the soul of a place. Pocahontas Island is significant not just because it’s old, but for its connections to the Revolutionary War, the slave rebellions of the early 1800s, the Underground Railroad and the Civil War.

“You may have a museum in Washington D.C.,” Stewart said, “but we are on natural ground. We are on land where slaves walked, where abolitionists walked. This is our native land.”

‘A place of self-reliance’

Stewart grew up here when it was still full of life, and he swam in the river and played Civil War in the woods. He was orphaned by age 16, but others on the island looked out for him. He left to work for the military and civil service, but always came back. As the neighbors got older, some gave him discounts to buy their property, with the understanding that he would take care of it. So, it became his life’s work.

And along the way, he absorbed stories.

One of his ancestors, Charles Stewart, was profiled in an 1884 edition of Harper’s Monthly magazine under the headline, “My Life as a Slave.” Richard Stewart tells how Charles, who had money because he was a champion horse trainer, went to Richmond to buy a wife for $350.

After four years, Betsey Dandridge had borne him three children and done untold amounts of laundry and cooking. But Charles grew frustrated that she wouldn’t give up voodoo, Richard Stewart said. So he took her back to Richmond, sold her — and the children — for $350 and used the money to buy a horse. Betsey and the children wound up somewhere in Chesterfield County, but Richard Stewart doesn’t know their fates.

Slaves and free blacks lived side by side on Pocahontas Island, which was a port on the Appomattox before joining the city of Petersburg. It became an island after a canal was built in the late 1700s. Today, it’s more of a peninsula, as the main channel of the river clogged after a flood in the early 1970s.

Petersburg was one of the busiest slave markets in the old South, but it also had one of the highest concentrations of free blacks, attracted by jobs and by the presence of a community of their own. For a time, in the spirit of liberty after the Revolutionary War, a few planters freed their slaves.

And Pocahontas Island was where many went to live. That means history has played out here from an African American point of view from before the Revolution until today.

“It is an active African American community that has direct ties to that period of not only Petersburg but Virginia history, and by extension the nation’s history,” said Louis Malon of the nonprofit Preservation Virginia, which plans to catalog sites on the island beginning this month. In 2014, the organization listed Pocahontas Island as one of the most endangered historic sites in the state.

About 50 houses, one chapel and a community center are laid out on five streets. The population is down to roughly 60 people, from a high of several hundred in the mid-20th century, and all the stores and businesses are gone. The only brick building is the Jarrett House, built in 1810 and once home to a free black woman and her children. The city of Petersburg bought it and has stabilized it, but is mired in budget woes, so restoration is on hold.

Richmond writer and entrepreneur Free Egunfemidiscovered Pocahontas Island when researching her family’s history, and has become a passionate advocate, writing articles in a local news blog.

“It is a place,” Egunfemi said, “of self-reliance and black freedom.”

‘Stress of slavery’

The rooms of Stewart’s history museum are crammed with too much for the eye to take in. He has slave shackles, countless pictures and artifacts dug up from nearby yards: a doll’s head, iron locks, bottles, shells. The 1860 sheet music for the “Virginia Polka” by Tom the Blind Negro Boy Pianist sits next to a one-year contract to hire a slave in 1836. And all of it is papered with hand-lettered signs, some listing rolls of blacks who fought in the Revolution or even for the Confederacy.

Outside, Stewart has bought the small house next door, which he said was built in the early 1800s by a mixed-race man whose white mother sold him into slavery as a child because she couldn’t be seen with him. Stewart painted it pink and yellow and covered it with words and pictures related to Nat Turner.

At least one man who helped Turner’s bloody slave rebellion in 1831 in nearby Southampton County hid, for a time, in the woods on Pocahontas Island, Stewart said.

An ode to Nat Turner is on the old William Walthall house that was built in 1837 to 1838. It may have turned into a secret hiding place for fugitive slaves during the time of the Underground Railroad. Richard Stewart owns the house now. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

“Folks here provided him food,” he said.

This is the kind of detail of history that’s hard to prove. Stewart has the word of older generations, but not much was documented in any formal way.

Across the street stands an empty duplex wrapped in faux-stone composite paper. Stewart doesn’t own this house, but he watches over it nonetheless. According to city records, the house was built in 1809, and according to local lore, it was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

“Look up under here,” Stewart said on a visit, pointing to a hole in the home’s foundation. “This will give you an idea what the Underground Railroad was like.” Below the house is a dirt-floored crawl space, unusual for this area, and just high enough for an adult to stand upright. Even more striking: a brick fireplace, directly beneath the main fireplace of the home. Soot still stains the bricks from where someone — a runaway slave? — once made fires.

Some of the island’s landmarks remain in memory only. Where the empty lumber factory stands was once a home that belonged to Joseph Jenkins Roberts, who ran a small fishing business while cutting hair in Petersburg. “He left in 1829 — the state had appropriated money to send blacks back to Africa,” Stewart said. In 1847, Roberts became the first elected president of Liberia. Pocahontas Island used to hold an annual festival in his honor.

Stewart talks about slavery in an offhand way that can seem jarring. He credits his stature and strong build to what many regard as the myth of selective breeding. In colorful terms, he tells how mixed-race children were sent to live on the island: “We had a lot of out-of-wedlock mulattos over here. You might have seen a child walking along over here white as snow, and [the] mama walking along dark as a bag of coal.”

His stories have a way of making a troubling past seem disconcertingly close. And to Stewart, it is.

Stewart grew up on Pocahontas Island when it was still full of life, and he swam in the river and played Civil War in the woods. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

When he looks at the issues of today — racial tensions, police shootings, economic disparities — he sees their roots in “the post-traumatic stress of slavery.” Emancipation was left unfinished. Families who never accumulated wealth or property had nothing to pass down to their children, who could never break the cycle of poverty.

“The post-traumatic stress of slavery did not leave you any generational wealth,” he said, “and that’s what’s wrong with America, in my opinion.”

‘I see the spirits’

In 1993, Pocahontas Island was devastated by a tornado that also destroyed significant parts of downtown Petersburg. Two good things came of it, Stewart said: College students and other outsiders descended on the neighborhood to help it clean up. And an old junkyard was cleared away.

Previous owners, he said, had prohibited locals from cutting through the junkyard to get to the Appomattox River, where Stewart grew up playing under the trestles of a bridge that Robert E. Lee once crossed on his way to Richmond.

“I told God if I ever got a chance to buy this property, they’d never deny my people going to the river again,” Stewart said. “So when I got the chance, I bought it.”

The home of William N. Stevens, who was born in 1850 to a Petersburg, Va., family that had been free for three or four generations. The home is now owned by Richard Stewart, the proprietor of the Pocahontas Island Black History Museum. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

On slow days — most days — Stewart likes to walk on the path along the riverbank. He takes stock of his property, and worries about the work still ahead. At his age, he said, he’s running out of energy. He doesn’t know whether Pocahontas Island’s traditions will survive beyond him.

But he tells himself he’s done everything he could. “Your history is here. It’s living. It’s American history, that’s what’s here,” he said. “I walk the nature trail and look at Pocahontas and see the spirits of yesterday. I know I sound crazy. I see the spirits of yesterday, and they speak to me and tell me I’m doing all right.”

About this series

This story is part of an occasional series on people connected to the figures or events featured in the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture.