POCAHONTAS ISLAND, Va. — Lots of old neighborhoods make the claim: See that house? It was once a stop on the Underground Railroad.
So much mythology has grown up around the subject — such as the debunked idea that railroaders communicated via symbols sewn onto quilts — that scholars are skeptical of most claims. Especially in the South, where it was too dangerous for any one place to be used repeatedly.
One of the primary attractions on Pocahontas Island is a home with just such a reputation. The community, founded in 1752, is one of the oldest African American settlements in the country. Underground Railroad tour groups from many states have visited for a look.
But is the empty, two-residence home at 215 Witten Street the real deal?
Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a professor at Norfolk State University who has researched efforts to free slaves in Virginia, was doubtful when told of the claim.
“I would be very surprised if there were any houses at all in the South that you could identify as providing havens for enslaved people trying to escape through the Underground Railroad,” she said.
Pocahontas Island, though, has some points in its favor. First, Petersburg - where the island is located — was a hotbed of slaves seeking freedom. An authoritative history of the Underground Railroad published in 1872 by William Still, who was instrumental in running the operation in Philadelphia, is packed with references to slaves fleeing through Petersburg for New England and Canada.
One of the most famous cases was known as the Keziah Affair, in which five slaves who escaped from Petersburg were found hidden on the schooner Keziah after it ran aground in the Appomattox River in 1858. Local tradition has it that those slaves left from Pocahontas Island.
And the privately owned house on Witten Street has some intriguing features that make the Underground Railroad connection seem plausible. It has a dirt-floored, six-foot-deep crawl space, a feature most nearby homes lack. And there is a fireplace down there, directly beneath the home’s main fireplace, so smoke wouldn’t seem suspicious.
Newby-Alexander acknowledged that those features could indicate the home was used, at least once, to hide someone running for freedom. “I would say that sounds interesting,” she said.
Louis Malon, of the nonprofit group Preservation Virginia, is familiar with the house and is reasonably convinced.
“I think it’s pretty well accepted,” he said. “There’s a lot of good evidence but very little written record that would support it. But [the evidence] would certainly lead one to conclude that it was a stop if not a terminus on the Underground Railroad.”