Workshop III

War, Reconstruction, and Civil Rights, 1861-1960s (May 2007)

  • Invited outside scholar: Dr. Jane Dailey (University of Chicago)
  • In-house presenters: Dr. Paul Alkebulan, Dr. Richard Chew, Dulaney Ward, Dr. Wesley Hogan

During the Civil War, Petersburg was a strategic center for both the Confederacy and the Union and an important battle site. During the final year of the war black troops took a major role in the Eastern theatre and fought in Petersburg’s famous Battle of the Crater. Black troops were crucial to the capture of Richmond and Petersburg in April 1865; black soldiers pursued Lee from Petersburg to his final surrender at the Appomattox Court House.

During Reconstruction, a former Confederate general from Petersburg formed the Readjustor Party, a biracial political machine that initiated numerous reforms benefiting both blacks and poor whites in the region and paved the way for the founding of Virginia State University.

Petersburg remained a center for African American educational excellence, professional development, and political activity well into the 20th century. In the 1930s and 40s, in addition to his work as an historian of free blacks in antebellum Petersburg, VSU professor Luther P. Jackson was an influential voice and pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement; he was also a founder of the first African American studies’ professional group, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and Culture.

Petersburg residents continued to play important roles in the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s. Pastor Vernon Johns moved to Petersburg after Alabama racists ran him out of Dexter Avenue Baptist church in Montgomery; 26-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. then had to fill Johns’ shoes. Johns became a mentor for several black ministers in Petersburg, including Wyatt T. Walker who in 1960 became the Executive Secretary of Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. VSU students integrated the Petersburg Public Library and Thalheimer’s Department Store and participated in the Freedom Rides. Many whites in Petersburg allied with officials from nearby Prince Edward County (the site of a five-year school closing to avoid the implementation of the Brown decision) in groups that resembled ‘White Citizens Councils.’ Despite formidable obstacles, the city integrated by 1972, largely due to its core of faith-based freedom activists. VSU’s history department is engaged in a multiyear project with the City of Petersburg to document and publicize its civil rights activism through the Petersburg Civil Rights Oral History Project.


  • Dailey, Jane. Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in Postemancipation Virginia . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

  • Dailey, Jane. “Deference and Violence in the Postbellum Urban South: Manners and Massacres in Danville, Virginia.” The Journal of Southern History , Vol. 63 No. 3 (Aug. 1997), pp. 553-590.

  • Hogan, Wesley. Many Minds, One Heart—SNCC’s Dream for a New America . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
  • Branch, Taylor. “Forerunner: Vernon Johns,” Parting the Waters . New York: Simon and Schuster. 1989.
  • Greene, Wilson. Civil War Petersburg: Confederate City in the Crucible of War . Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006.

  • Crosby, Emily. Looking the Devil in the Eye—Who Gets to tell the Story.” A Little Taste of Freedom . Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2005. Pp. 269-282.

  • Moye, J. Todd. “Questions That Liberalism Is Incapable of Answering—Organizing Alternatives, 1964-1977.” Let the People Decide. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2004. pp. 148-170.

  • Payne, Charles. “Forward.” Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Movements in America. Theoharis and Woodard, eds. New York: New York University Press. pp. ix-xv.

  • Longacre, Edward G. “Black Troops in the Army of the James, 1863-65.” Military Affairs , Vol. 45, No. 1. (Feb. 1981), pp. 1-8.

  • Kerr-Ritchie, Jeff R. “Black Republicans in the Virginia Tobacco Fields, 1867-70.” Journal of Negro History , Vol. 86, No. 1 (Winter 2001), 12-29.

  • Leib, Jonathan I., Robert E. Lee, ‘Race,’ Representation, and Redevelopment along Richmond, Virginia’s Canal Walk.” Southern Geographer , Vol. 44, No. 3 (2004), pp. 236-262.

Focus Questions:

  • How did the Civil War and Reconstruction impact Petersburg's African American community? How did Petersburg's African American community impact the Civil War and Reconstruction?
  • What specifically did the Petersburg Civil Rights Movement Achieve?
  • What can we learn from the Petersburg experience about connections between education, economics, and race relations?


Paul Alkebulan: From the End of Readjustment to Brown vs Board of Education : The Virginia Teachers' Association and the Virginia Voters' League

Richard Chew:

Dulaney Ward:

Wesley Hogan: Petersburg and the Civil Rights Movement

Jane Dailey:

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