Tucked away in Petersburg is Pocahontas Island, known to be one of the first Black communities in America. One man, Richard Stewart, has made it his life’s mission to keep the community alive through the island’s Black History Museum.
Since opening in 2003, Stewart has kept his museum up and running pretty much out of his own pocket. On Monday, he received his largest donation ever — $3,500 from a group of homeschooled students.
“Today is our Fourth of July celebration,” Stewart said Monday. “We are going to celebrate the freedom of the oldest Black community in the USA.”
Cultural Roots Homeschool Cooperative, focused on teaching about Black and brown communities, visited the Petersburg museum back in 2019. After visiting, the students wanted to find a way to make sure more children knew of the museum and also provide some financial support.
Pocahontas Island, located on a peninsula along the Appomattox River, is a historic Black Petersburg community, often said to be one of the oldest Black communities in America.
Slaves ran away from plantations and came to Pocahontas — it was known as the Promised Land, Stewart said.
In the present day, it is home to about 60 people, including Stewart, a lifelong resident.
“This is my life. My people died here,” Stewart said in a documentary he showed the students Monday morning.
Stewart owns nearly a quarter of the island properties, thanks to his ancestors. He has traced back eight generations of his family living in Petersburg.
“My ancestors, when I was a child, they told me that one day I would tell a story, and then what happened before they died, they made sure I got the property,” Stewart said, who now uses the museum to tell his family story.
The seven-room house converted into a museum features nearly 100 artifacts per room, Stewart said. Artifacts include slave shackles, countless pictures and maps, dolls, iron locks, old documents and an incredibly heavy, welded-shut trunk that had belonged to the estate of Staff Sgt. Edward Thompson, a Black World War II veteran who was born in Petersburg. Stewart has yet to open the trunk.
Middle school students of the Cultural Roots Homeschool Cooperative created a short documentary film about Stewart’s life work this past fall.
In the two-minute film, the students interviewed Stewart and filmed the various rooms of the museum. At the end of the video, a donation link was provided, which allowed for the students to raise $3,500 for the museum.
“We wanted younger generations to know about this museum,” Jameelah Tucker, 13, said Monday.
Jameelah, who worked on the film, learned more about slavery during the process. Before the documentary, Jameelah did not realize slaves were shackled and then had to travel on a small boat. She had thought it was a bigger boat.
Jordan Wright, 13, learned about Black soldiers who fought in many historical wars.
“I want you to know that you’ve impacted us to have many conversations around preserving history and what it means to have actual history and sharing it with the community and the value of all [of it],” Alycia Wright, founder and director of Cultural Roots, said to Stewart as students presented him with the check.
Cultural Roots was created after Wright and other families saw the need for a homeschool space that wasn’t predominantly white or Christian. The cooperative, about 37 students this year, provides a space for children of color.
“We really dedicate ourselves to focusing on culture, in particular, Black culture, but also the cultures of many of our Co-Op families,” Wright said.
Students want to continue their relationship with Stewart and his museum. Some have already suggested placing a little lending library in front of it and swapping out the books once a month. The cooperative also plans to start an annual monetary campaign for a local organization or effort.
In 2014, the still-standing properties on Pocahontas Island were placed on Virginia’s Most Endangered Historic Places list. Many properties were destroyed in a 1993 tornado.
However, last May, Pocahontas Island residents watched in dismay as 215 Witten St., believed to be a former Underground Railroad stop, was demolished. Stewart wants to preserve the remaining properties on the island, so no more are torn down.
Stewart walked the students around the island, stopping at various historic landmarks and outside homes he owns. After circling back to the museum, the children signed a card for Stewart, and everyone celebrated the day with cake and iced tea.