One can catch glimpses of rundown homes and impoverished neighborhoods as you pass by Petersburg in winter when the grey skeletons of trees and shrubs lay bare the sight that is hidden from the traveler’s eyes in summer.
What the eye doesn’t see, the heart does not grieve over, is an old saying and it is never a truer statement when the winter cruelly reveals a blighted, forgotten and neglected landscape.
Poverty is not merely an economic reality. It is also a political one in which years and years of attempts to solve the situation have still not improved conditions for millions of people struggling to make ends meet – not only here but across the country.
Petersburg, I discovered, has a fascinating history.
Once a vital center for of manufacturing and commerce, it also played a large part in the slave trade and the export of goods thanks in large part to the Appomattox River and the canals and waterways which were constructed to make it navigable.
It was a settlement in the early 1600’s, and became an incorporated city in 1748 and was occupied by the British in the American Revolutionary War of 1775-1783. It became a destination for many freed slaves and during the American Civil War. The city was besieged for nine months in 1864-5 and heavily bombed, destroying large parts of what was then the second largest city in Virginia. It was also a major railroad hub.
A failure on the part of city governance to secure extra land to enlarge the city, as well as several major industries moving their operations to areas where labor was cheaper, led to a steady decline in tax revenue for Petersburg. The middle class dwindled, and the working class became more and more impoverished.
The old town is seeing new life as cheaper rents have led to many small specialty stores, restaurants and artsy establishments making this a destination for tourists. The old town is rich in history and good use has been made of some renovated buildings which have been refurbished as apartments and lofts. Some of the old cobbled streets remain in use which lends authenticity to the setting.
Pocahontas Island, which played a vital role during the slave trade years and is the oldest black community in the country, is in sore need of attention: one, a house which was important in the Underground Railroad, and another, a museum dedicated to Black History in the area would make great additions to the cultural history of our country.
The Visitor Center as well as several other historical sites no longer receive funding and rely on non-profits and donations to remain in good running order which is a terrible shame.
It seems, sadly, that black history is regarded as something separate from “white” history, as if the one had nothing to do with the other. We are all products of our historical narrative, it is the past, we cannot change it or white-wash it, but we can attempt to build bridges to honoring the struggle and acknowledging that African Americans shouldn’t be sidelined because their struggle was real and every bit as painful as the white men who battled the British and later, their own compatriots during the Civil War.
So next time, make Petersburg a destination, explore, walk around, and enrich your life experience because this is OUR history too – and be sure to pay a visit to the historic Blandford Cemetery if you enjoy graveyards.
The oldest grave dates back to 1702 but more than that, thirty thousand Confederate soldiers are buried there. There is a palpable air of grief that hangs in the air. I left there with a very sore heart, not only for those whose voices were stilled forever, but also for a city that needs a real helping hand.
Image above from http://www.drivei95.com/Newsletters/October_2009.html
Image on right from http://www.historicPetersburg.org
Other interesting information:
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(The above was taken from http://www.historicpetersburg.org/
and I share it in an endeavor to promote the wonderful, rich history of Petersburg.)