Monday, August 20, 2007

Pocahontas Museum a work of African-American Folk Art

Richard Stewart stands in front of his museum and looks at the small houses scattered around the area known as Pocahontas Island. Then he points toward Interstate 95, visible in the distance, and he shakes his head. "They drive by, 80 miles an hour, day after day," he says. "And they never know that all this history is right here, so close by."
Stewart does his part to let people know. In a region that's filled with African-American history, this small area - whose residents claim it is the oldest black community in the country - has a particularly interesting background, dating back 200 years as a neighborhood largely populated by freed slaves.
Stewart, at age 63, is a lifelong resident of Pocahontas Island, which is not really an island at all - more like a small peninsula almost entirely encircled by a bend in the Appomattox River.
About four years ago, Stewart - a retired civil servant - bought this small house for a little over $20,000 and decided to turn it into a museum dedicated to black history, with an emphasis on the local region but also covering a wide variety of related subjects. "But it's not just black history," he says. "This is a historic house without prejudice. It's about blacks and whites and Jews - it's our history."
The Richard Stewart-Pocahontas Museum does not fit the common preconception of a museum. Not from the outside (it's a small clapboard house on a rundown street), and not on the inside (which resembles a cluttered curio shop). Its truely a piece of African-American Folk Art in its being.
If you sit down with Stewart and listen to him tell the story of the area, of his family, of this museum, you'll be fascinated by what you learn. And if you let him take you from room to room, explaining the significance of the various photos, documents and artifacts, he will make American and African history come to life for you.
Some of it is sad, such as the material focusing on the legacy of slavery or the matter-of-fact newspaper coverage of lynchings. But other material in the museum focuses on black heroes, the Civil Rights movement, and the culture of several African nations. The museum's scope is broad, and its lack of strictly themed exhibits allows guests to wander and explore.
The museum sits across the street from a house that was used as a stopping point for the Underground Railroad. Slaves attempting to escape the South would stay there until they could be safely moved farther north - because Pocahontas Island was predominantly composed of free blacks, the escaping slaves were able to blend into the neighborhood during their stay.
The Underground Railroad house isn't open to the public, but Stewart can explain to you its significance and is one of the few in Petersburg who can tell you about the Keziah Affair, in which a schooner attempted to smuggle five slaves out of Petersburg in 1858.
Looking around the neighborhood, Stewart explains that there are fewer than 100 people still living on Pocahontas Island - mostly older people who have lived here their whole lives, many of them related to one another.
The neighborhood is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but Stewart wonders how much longer it will be around. Eventually, he admits with a sigh of resignation, it most likely will be bought by developers and used to build new homes or businesses. But for now, Stewart works every day to keep the area's history alive.

Info: 804-861-8889. The Richard Stewart-Pocahontas Museum is open on weekdays, but its hours are irregular. If you're planning a visit, it's best to call ahead and arrange a tour.