Virtual tour of Slavery and Freedom in Antebellum Petersburg

This section of the website will help you imagine that you were touring Petersburg in the 1850s, just a few short years before the American Civil War opens which shattered the institution of legalized slavery in the United States of America. We encourage you to go visit these sites in person if possible so you can best understand their context in the portions of Petersburg that they exist. We recommend that you start your tour in downtown Petersburg at 37 River Street, Petersburg, VA 23803.

There are driving directions to assist those who wish to tour the sites in person and images of the sites and structures are included for those who tour from home. Thank you for touring historic Petersburg and we sincerely hope you will learn more about Petersburg’s history and its place in the antebellum South

Side Railroad Depot, 37 River Street

In front of you is the South Side Railroad’s Petersburg train station finished about 1854, constructed in the Italianate architectural style popular in the 1850s. The rail road depot in front of you is one of the oldest surviving railroad depots in the country, finished about the same time that the rail line was completed. The eastern side of the building was unfortunately ripped apart by a tornado in 1993. The South Side Railroad was finished in 1854 and connected Petersburg with Lynchburg, Virginia. The City Point Railroad was acquired by the South Side Railroad in the 1850s and in total this rail line ran for 136 miles through several of Virginia’s southern counties allowing farmers quick access to the material goods for sale in Petersburg and to sell their crops.

Thomas Branch & Sons, 1 Old Street

Throughout the 1850s, railroad companies throughout the South (there were in total four lines: the Petersburg & Weldon, the Richmond & Petersburg, the South Side, and the Norfolk & Petersburg) actively used slave labor to build, maintain, and repair the tracks, operate the trains, assist passengers, and move freight. Aaron Marrs emphasizes that enslaved laborers were “integral to every aspect of railroad operation in the South.” The railroad companies hired slaves annually seeking enslaved people at Corling’s Corner between Christmas and January 1 in the antebellum and Civil War periods. Free blacks also found employment with the railroad companies. For example, in December 1856, the South Side Railroad Company’s superintendent advertised that the company wanted to hire 250 slaves and free blacks to repair roads and work at depots between City Point and Lynchburg. Thus the railroad age blended with the institution of slavery and here at this depot, passengers found black men: free and enslaved, working to unload and load freight and baggage and assist passengers and for some slaves they were there to be passengers themselves.

If touring by car: Drive from River Street, make a RIGHT onto Old Street and on your right is 1 OLD STREET. Exercise caution as the building is located at a T-intersection. If you are able, you may wish to travel by foot to view the building.

Thomas Branch (1802-1888) was an important commission merchant, banker, and auctioneer in antebellum and wartime Petersburg. His Petersburg business in the antebellum period, Thomas Branch & Sons, was the destination for crops sold by farmers and plantation owners but it also was a pit stop in the ever expanding interstate slave trade. Unlike Alexandria, Richmond, New Orleans, Charleston, and other southern cities, Petersburg did not have any semblance of an organized slave mart. However, slaves were bought and sold in this city with regularity by people who listed their occupations as auctioneers. Fanny, a “good WASHER and IRONER,” another woman (whose name is unknown) who was “a good SEAMSTRESS, WASHER and IRONER,” along “with four children, ages from 18 months to 10 years” were up for bid on Tuesday, December 28, 1858 in front of this building. As invasive, demeaning and destructive as slave auctions could be, enslaved people were also able to shape their sale by the stories they told potential buyers and by the way they stood and talked though they were not always successful. Nevertheless, the people up for auction and the people there to bid were both on display to the other.

This three-story, building adjacent to 314 N Sycamore Street, exhibiting fine Federal architectural details fronts Sycamore Street in downtown Petersburg. Hugh Garland had fallen on strained economic fortunes and moved to Petersburg in the early 1840s and brought his wife, Anne, children, and the enslaved people who worked for them to this building living in the upstairs rooms. One of the enslaved people was Elizabeth Hobbs, who later became known as Elizabeth Keckly (alternately spelled Keckley). Elizabeth’s mother, like countless other enslaved women, was the victim of sexual violence and Elizabeth was the product of that unwanted union. Nevertheless, Lizzy’s mother loved her and Lizzy loved her family. Unfortunately, the rise of the interstate slave trade broke the Hobbs family apart as the black man that Lizzy considered her father, was sold.

Hugh Garland’s Residence, near 314 N Sycamore Street

Nevertheless, by the time Elizabeth moved to this place the enslaved people were worried about Garland’s finances as slaves were the most valuable part of the master’s wealth. Elizabeth may have been particularly valuable had she been caught in the slave trade because she could be marketed as a “fancy girl.” Whether or not she actively thought about this is unclear but it is possible. However, she avoided being sold despite Hugh Garland’s continued economic decline. In an effort to better care for his family, Garland removed his family and slaves to St. Louis where he established a law office. Garland’s services were needed by Mrs. Eliza Emerson (whose brother, John Sanford managed his brother-in-law’s estate) who was being sued by her slave, Dred Scott. Hugh Garland died before this case progressed to the U.S. Supreme Court but in the 1857 Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court ruled that Dred Scott was not a citizen and that in fact blacks within the nation had no rights “which the white man was bound to respect.”

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Keckly used her sewing skills in St. Louis which attracted some whites to get enough money to assist Keckly and her mixed-raced son (she also had been sexually attacked when she briefly lived in North Carolina after she left Petersburg) from enslavement to freedom. In November 1855 she and her son, George, were finally freed. She left St. Louis and moved to Washington, D.C. where she gained successful employment as a dressmaker to Varina Davis, the vivacious wife of Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis, who resigned his seat in 1861 and became the only Confederate President. Mrs. Davis begged Elizabeth to come back south with her but she refused. Elizabeth Keckly became a dressmaker and confidante for Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary. Towards the end of the Civil War, Keckly, who lost her only child in battle in 1861, returned to Petersburg. She said that the war “I soon discovered had brought many changes to the city so well known to me in the days of my youth. I found a number of old friends, but the greater portion of the population were strange to me. The scenes suggested painful memories, and I was not sorry to turn my back again upon the city.

As the sign in front of you notes, Corling’s Corner was the chief center for hiring the time of enslaved people. This site however was not popular amongst some as the editor of the Petersburg Press asked in December 1856 if some other space could be used because the “ladies” could not “get along” due to the crowd of enslaved people. However, the site was never changed. The person who hired the enslaved person was generally to provide an agreed upon sum to the owner, two sets of clothing (summer and winter), and depending on who was doing the hiring: food and shelter (less common amongst the tobacco factory owners). For hired slaves who were able to “live out” or away from their owner or hirer this allowed for a separate black culture to develop between free blacks and enslaved people which by the late antebellum period was feared by white Southerners and embraced by blacks.

If touring by car: Drive further on SYCAMORE STREET, make a LEFT onto COURTHOUSE AVENUE and park. The building on the hill with columns is the next site of interest.

Corling’s Corner, intersection of Sycamore and Bank Streets

The Petersburg Hustings Courthouse, built in 1839, was designed by New York architect Calvin Pollard. Lady Justice sits atop the courthouse; however, this spectacular Greek Revival building was not a welcome sight to all of Petersburg’s past residents. For those few people who were emancipated in the late antebellum period, this building is where they received that important news. Overall however, the enslaved and free black communities in antebellum Petersburg attempted to stay away from this building as Lady Justice’s courtroom counterparts rarely provided justice to the African-American residents of the city

In the summer of 1858, this building hosted Petersburg’s most famous Underground Railroad trial. Captain William Baylis pulled his ship out of the Petersburg dock on May 31, 1858 to begin the trek back to Delaware to deliver wheat. However, several city residents reported that the slaves named Sarah, Gilbert, John Bull, Joseph Mayo, and William were missing. One of the slaveholders believed his slave was on board the Keziah obtained a group of people and a search warrant to go find the schooner before it escaped. Eventually the ship was captured 26 miles east of City Point in the James River. Upon inspection all the enslaved people reported missing were on board

Petersburg Hustings Courthouse, 1 Courthouse Avenue

The courthouse was the scene of a fairly quick trial which was heard by Judge Nash. He sentenced Baylis to the state “penitentiary for the period of eight years” for each of the enslaved laborers he attempted to assist in their journey north. In total, Baylis was to serve 40 years in prison. However, he was released during the Civil War.

The enslaved people who were on board had destinations had they arrived in the North. All these people had paid Baylis fifty dollars to transport them though only Gilbert had $500 on him. Joseph Mayo intended to go to New York where his runaway wife was already located. John Bull intended on settling in a new job as a waiter in Toronto. Virginia slaveholders frequently sold stubborn enslaved laborers “down river.” As these four men and one woman’s dreams were dashed it is not surprising that John Bull’s owner, Andrew Kevan, sold him for $1150 to man in Tennessee.

Architectural historian John Michael Vlach argues that urban slaveholders possessed “a plantation mentality” despite their urban environment. This was true in Petersburg where several urban compounds existed. Urban slave quarters and associated outbuildings were often constructed in the latest architectural style and of materials consistent with the main residence, as is the case at Reuben Ragland’s house. His insurance policy for the property illustrates that he possessed a hierarchal complex.

The main residence faced Sycamore Street in the fashionable community edging Poplar Lawn Park. People passing down Sycamore admired the three story Italianate mansion. Ragland and his guests enjoyed entrance into a central hall which was flanked on the left by a double parlor and a smaller room on the right. The bedrooms were upstairs. As you can see there is a one story hyphen, which was the dining room, which connects the front of the house to a diminutive two-story structure at the back of the house.

However, the two-story portion attached to the dining room served as space for his enslaved laborers to work and live. The lower level served as a kitchen while the upper level was where the enslaved servants slept. Historically this compound also had a smokehouse and coal house which was attached to privies which were noted on the insurance policy as being used by the “white and enslaved family.” These buildings were destroyed due to the construction of the neighboring Trinity Methodist Church. The property was enclosed with an iron fence separating this “urban plantation” from the streets near the building.

Reuben Ragland’s House, 205 S Sycamore Street

By 1860, Reuben Ragland owned a little more than 30 enslaved people. Most of these people did not live on the property but were allowed to “live out” or away from his residence. Nevertheless, even though the kitchen-quarter at the back of the house is brick and consistent with the style of the main residence, it was built for Ragland to showcase his wealth and his hope to gain compliance over the blacks who labored for him. However, Ragland (like other contemporary slaveholders) never was able to fully control black people. During the Civil War, Ragland’s literate slave, Frank, went to Richmond to visit his mother. He then forged a pass and intended on running away but was caught and whipped.

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