African American heritage in Virginia spans centuries, from Jamestown and the Revolutionary War through the Civil War, Emancipation and the Civil Rights eras in Coastal Virginia – Hampton Roads, Heart of Appalachia, Northern Virginia, and Central Virginia.
Early Africans in Virginia
Africans first came to Virginia in the early 1500s — almost a century before the English permanently settled Jamestown in 1607 — as explorers and as members of Spanish and French Jesuit missions.
In August 1619, the first recorded Africans as “some 20 and odd” arrived at Point Comfort, site of Fort Monroe in Hampton, after being forced from their villages in present-day Angola and pushed onto a Portuguese slave ship headed for the New World.
Nearing its destination, the slave ship was confronted by two English ships, the White Lion and the Treasurer, and robbed of 50-60 Africans. The two English ships then sailed for Virginia where the White Lion arrived first at Point Comfort followed by the Treasurer a few days later. The Africans were sold into bondage and transported to Jamestown despite Virginia having no clear laws acknowledging slavery until 1661. Learn More.
FORT MONROE – Visit “Freedom’s Fortress” at Fort Monroe National Monument and learn about the origin and endpoint of slavery.
JAMESTOWN – In 1625, one of the first Africans, a woman named “Angelo” (Angela), was listed in a colony-wide census as living in the household of Captain William Pierce of New Towne. Visit the Angela Site at Historic Jamestowne where archeologists are excavating the site of Pierce’s property to learn more about Angela’s world.
NEWPORT NEWS – During the Revolutionary War, the Navy recruited free as well as enslaved African Americans, often purchasing slaves for naval service. See the Age of Exploration Gallery at the Mariners' Museum.
The Virginia War Museum features military history from 1775 to the present day. See the Marches Toward Freedom gallery, which explores the roles of African Americans in the military.SUFFOLK – Some slaves escaped to the Great Dismal Swamp region of Virginia as early as the 1650s and were known as Maroons.
WILLIAMSBURG – During the Revolutionary era, most African Americans lived in the Chesapeake region, about 50-60 percent of the overall population. Visit Colonial Williamsburg and learn about the people who worked on tobacco plantations and large farms at the Slave Quarter at Carter's Grove.
African Slaves Escape to the Heart of Appalachia
As early as the mid-1600s, enslaved Africans escaped their bondage and lived with Native Americans. Their offspring were Melungeons people of Portuguese, Native-American and African ancestry.
PENNINGTON GAP – The Appalachian African-American Cultural Center features historical artifacts from the African-American experience in the Heart of Appalachia region.
Runaway and Freed Slaves in Northern Virginia
ALEXANDRIA – The African American Heritage Park features a sculpture group of bronze trees, Truths that Rise from the Roots Remembered by sculptor Jerome Meadows and acknowledges the African Americans who contributed to the growth of Alexandria.
The Alexandria Black History Museum features the contributions of African Americans from 1749 to the present day.
MASON NECK – Gunston Hall Plantation was the home of George Mason, author of America's first Bill of Rights, the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Although a lifelong slaveholder, Mason abhorred the institution and wanted to see it abolished during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. He said, "every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant."
MOUNT VERNON – George Washington's Mount Vernon features Slave Life tours of the Greenhouse slave quarters and the slaves burial grounds. "In his last will and testament, Washington spelled out his directions for freeing the more than 100 enslaved human beings that he personally owned. Much more than just a functional legal instrument, the will served as George Washington's final message to his country."
Tobacco and Iron Work in Central Virginia
CHARLOTTESVILLE – Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, features tours of Mulberry Row, where the slaves lived.
LYNCHBURG – Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest is his octagonal retreat near the Blue Ridge Mountains. Archaeologists have excavated four slave cabins at Poplar Forest, including both single family log cabins and a duplex for extended families.
MONTPELIER STATION – Montpelier, home of James and Dolley Madison, offers Saturday tours of the slave quarters, outdoor kitchen, cemetery and Mount Pleasant April-October.
PETERSBURG – Gillfield Baptist Church is the second oldest African-American church in America! It dates from 1786.
Pocahontas Island was one of the earliest predominantly African-American neighborhoods. The first enslaved people were brought here in 1732 to work in the tobacco warehouses. In 1797, free African Americans lived there, too. The National Park Service: "Petersburg was considered to have the largest number of free blacks of any Southern city at that time. Many of the freedmen prospered there as barbers, blacksmiths, boatmen, draymen, livery stable keepers and caterers."
RICHMOND – Learn about African-American life from Jamestown in 1619 to the present day at the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia.
Civil War to Emancipation
Hardy – Booker T. Washington was born on a tobacco plantation as a slave child. Learn about his early life, his emancipation and his many accomplishments at the Booker T. Washington National Monument, which is overseen by the National Park Service.
Christiansburg – The Historic Area of Christiansburg includes the Christiansburg Industrial Institute established in 1866 for African-Americans, which was supervised by Booker T. Washington.
GOOCHLAND – The Jackson Blacksmith Shop was built in 1880 by Henry Jackson, a freed slave. It was passed down through the generations until the 1970s. It is now listed on the Virginia Register of Historic Places.
LYNCHBURG – See the Anne Spencer House and Garden by appointment only. Anne Spencer was the only African American woman and the only Virginian included in the Norton Anthology of Modern American and British Poetry!
PETERSBURG – Pamplin Historical Park & The National Museum of the Civil War Soldier sits on the property where the last battles of the Civil War occurred. See plantation life reenacted at Tudor Hall and the Military Encampment with full-scale earthworks dug by the slaves and military demonstrations. Plan to spend the day, because there's so much to see and do!
PETERSBURG – Petersburg National Battlefield is where a number of Civil War battles occurred between June 15, 1864 and April 1, 1865. About 40,000 slaves were promised their freedom if they agreed to fight for the South. Also, 187,000 African-Americans served in the Union army. Of those, the greatest concentration of U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) was at Petersburg.
PETERSBURG – The Triangle — South Avenue, Halifax and Harrison Streets — was the African-American business center until the 1970s. After Reconstruction, African Americans formed their own separate society with banks, drugstores, barbershops and even the Rialto Theater.
RICHMOND – The Jackson Ward Neighborhood is considered The Birthplace of African American Entrepreneurship and spans more than 12 blocks of historic sites.
RICHMOND – The Maggie Walker House is the home of the first woman in the United States to found and serve as president of a bank.
RICHMOND – The historic Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church was organized in 1867 by the renowned African-American preacher, Reverend John Jasper.
GUM SPRINGS – The Gum Springs Historical Society and Museum features the oldest African-American community in Fairfax County, established in 1833. Located near Mount Vernon, it was a sanctuary for freed slaves and runaways.
THE PLAINS – The Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier County is an African-American Museum and Genealogical Resource Center.
Coastal Virginia – Hampton Roads
HAMPTON – The city of Hampton is rich in African-American Heritage. See: Fort Monroe, dubbed "Freedom's Fortress" during the Civil War, and Emancipation Oak, where President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was first read to Hampton's people, at Hampton University, founded in 1868 as an institute of higher learned for newly freed African Americans.
PORTSMOUTH – The Emanuel A.M.E. Church dates from 1857. The first African-American pastor, Rev. James A. Handy, served here.
PORTSMOUTH – See the Medal of Honor Monument that honors 11 soldiers, including Sgt. Charles Veal with the 4th U.S. Colored Troops who served at the Battle of New Market Heights in 1864.
SOUTHAMPTON COUNTY – See the markers of sites where the Nat Turner Rebellion took place.
Civil Rights to Present Day
COVINGTON – Visit the Longdale Recreation Area, formerly "Green Pastures Recreation Area" for use by the African Americans during the late 1930s.
ROANOKE – The Harrison Museum of African-American Culture is on the first floor of the first public high school for African-American students in Southwest Virginia.
Blue Ridge Highlands
PULASKI – The Pulaski County Courthouse features the local history of African Americans, developed by Lucy Harmon, wife of Chauncy, an early civil rights advocate in the 1950s.
Coastal Virginia – Hampton Roads
HAMPTON – The Hampton University Museum is the oldest African-American museum in the United States. See African-American fine arts and an African collection of more than 3,500 pieces.
NEWPORT NEWS – The Newsome House Museum & Cultural Center is the restored 1899 home of African-American attorney, J. Thomas Newsome and his wife, Mary. He was a member of the post-Civil War south's new urban African-American middle class.
NORFOLK – Norfolk State University founded in 1935. It is Virginia's largest public historically black university and the 7th largest HBCU in the nation.
FARMVILLE – The Robert Russa Moton Museum, The National Center for the Study of Civil Rights in Education, was the site of the first non-violent student demonstration in 1951 that led to the Brown case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
HALIFAX – Take the Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail — 41 historically significant sites that tell the stories of civil rights in education.
RICHMOND – The L. Douglas Wilder Library and Learning Resource Center at Virginia Union University documents the life and career of Virginia's 66th governor and the first elected African American governor in U.S. history.
Last Updated: 1/7/2020