Workshop II

Establishing Black Institutions and Leadership, 1776 to Early 20th Century (November 2007)

  • Invited outside scholar: Dr. Melvin Patrick Ely (The College of William and Mary)
  • In-house presenters: Dr. Christina Proenza-Coles, Dr. Paul Alkebulan, Dr. Arthur Abraham, Lucious Edwards

In the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century Petersburg’s African American community built black churches, businesses, and other successful institutions in Virginia as well as West Africa. Petersburg was the site of two of the nation’s first black churches, which, in addition to religious congregation, served as sites for educational and political activities. A disproportionately large portion of Petersburg’s black community, free and enslaved, worked in skilled trades. Numerous free black residents of Petersburg received pensions for Revolutionary War service, owned property, and purchased slaves in order to manumit them. Several of Petersburg’s free black residents, including women, owned businesses.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, Petersburg residents proved instrumental in founding the West African nation of Liberia. Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a successful African-American merchant, emigrated to Liberia in 1829. Roberts served as Liberia’s first black governor and the first president of independent Liberia as well as the first president of Liberia College. His brother, another Petersburg native, served as Liberia’s first black bishop. Thousands of African Americans migrated from Petersburg to Liberia and hundreds more pursued missionary work in neighboring West African nations.

African Americans who stayed in Petersburg developed the region’s strongest center of black educational institutions. They chartered Peabody High School, which became the first publicly supported black high school in the state in 1880. Two years later, the city’s black leaders pushed the state government to charter the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (later Virginia State University), the first fully state supported, four-year institution of higher learning for blacks in America. Unlike most black colleges at that time, VSU’s faculty and Board of Visitors were of African descent. These faculty and administrators repeatedly and successfully fought to keep VSU a baccalaureate-granting institution, rather than follow the Tuskeegee model of vocational education. VSU’s first president, John Mercer Langston, became the first African American elected to Congress from Virginia.


  • Ely, Melvin Patrick. Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s through the Civil War . NY: Random House, 2005.

  • Lebsock, Suzanne. The Free Women of Petersburg: Status and Culture in a Southern Town, 1784-1860 . New York: W. W. Norton, 1984. pp. ix-xx, 87-111.
  • Jackson, Luther P. Free Negro Labor and Property Holding in Virginia, 1830-1860 . New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc. 1942. pp. ix-xv, 137-170.
  • Jackson, Luther P. “The Early Strivings of the Negro in Virginia,” The Journal of Negro History , 25:1 Jan 1940. pp. 25-34.
  • Jackson, Luther P. A Brief History of Gillfield Baptist Church . Petersburg: Virginia Printing Company, 1937. pp. 1-17.

  • Jackson, Luther P. “Free Negroes of Petersburg, Virginia.” Journal of Negro History, Vol. 12, No. 3, July 1927. p. 365-388.
  • Mitchell, Henry. Black Church Beginnings: The Long-Hidden Realities of the First Years . Grand Rapids, MI W. B. Eerdmans Pub. 2004. pp. 46-71.

  • Sidbury, James. Ploughshares into Swords: Race, Rebellion, and Identity in Gabriel's Virginia, 1730-1810 . New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. pp. ix-49.

  • Tyler-McGraw, Marie. An African Republic: Black and White Virginians in the Making of Liberia . Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2007.

  • Cheek, William F. “A Negro Runs for Congress: John Mercer Langston and the Virginia Campaign of 1888,” The Journal of Negro History , 52:1 Jan 1967. pp, 14-34.
  • Hartzell, Lawrence L. “The Exploration of Freedom in Black Petersburg, Virginia, 1865-1902,” in The Edge of the South: Life in Nineteenth-century Virginia . Edward Ayers and John C. Willis, eds. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991. pp. 134-156.

Focus Questions:

  • What are some of the factors and forces that underpinned the success of Petersburg’s black institutions in the past?

  • Local Episcopal churches, AME churches, and Baptist churches sponsored trips, emigrations, and even the first Liberian college. How does this case study illuminate the relationships between religion and education?

  • We know relatively little about Liberian emigration. To what degree did this outward migration impact the black church and black educational institutions in Petersburg?

  • How did the city’s churches and educational institutions work together towards “earthly freedoms”?


Christina Proenza-Coles: Free People of African Descent in the Americas: Conquistadores, Maroons, Artisans, and Military

Paul Alkebulan: The Black Church as a Vehicle for Liberation

Arthur Abraham:

Lucious Edwards:

Melvin Ely:

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