Underground Railroad home

Richard Stewart, founder of the Black History Museum on Pocahontas Island, is shown next to a demolished historic home on the Petersburg island. The house is widely believed to have been a stop for slaves trying to reach freedom.

PETERSBURG — The grass at the two-century-old dwelling on Pocahontas Island had been freshly cut; its trees trimmed. The property seemed poised for improvements. Then the crane arrived. 

Residents of this historic black Petersburg community, which dates back to the mid-18th century, watched as 215 Witten St. — widely believed to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad — was demolished on May 11. 

“We saw it, but we just couldn’t believe it was happening," said local historian Richard Stewart, founder of the Black History Museum on this peninsula along the Appomattox River that's home to about 60 people.

“It hurts, you know, to see it go like that.”

Black history in the U.S. has long been imperiled or rendered invisible. Many properties on Pocahontas Island were lost in a 1993 tornado. Efforts to preserve this community were so precarious that Preservation Virginia listed it among the state's Most Endangered Historic Sites in 2014.

Pocahontas Island is on the National Register of Historic Places, but only 2% of such sites focus on the African American experience, according to a February article in The New Yorker.

Petersburg resident Dulaney Ward, a former special assistant to the city manager, called the demolition a disaster for Pocahontas Island.  "The more you lose [properties] like that in that community, the more likely it is you’re going to lose everything else.”

The dwelling was built as a double home between 1809 and 1830, according to Petersburg preservation planner Kate Sangregorio.

The structure is believed to have housed in its basement enslaved people waiting to be "either smuggled through coffins or false-bottom boats up the Appomattox River and on to freedom," she said. "But it's hard to prove anything about the Underground Railroad because the nature of it was so secretive.”

According to Petersburg property records, the three-bedroom, 1,877-square-foot structure was assessed at $14,400. Its listed owner is Linda C. Twitty, who grew up in the house but now lives in Maryland, Stewart said.

“She always told me one day she might move back to Pocahontas and might redo the house."

Several attempts to reach Twitty for comment were unsuccessful.

Sangregorio heard on the evening of May 8 that the house might be demolished. On May 11, she tried to put the word out to potential buyers, but it was already too late.

“I almost started crying when I saw it, honestly," she said. "I was very sad. It’s one of the oldest buildings in the city — not just Pocahontas Island.”

Twitty recently received notice from the city's code compliance department to repair or demolish the deteriorated structure.

"The owner took the demolition route," Sangregorio said.

Twitty had rejected offers to sell the property, including from members of Stewart's family and Preservation Virginia, whose CEO, Elizabeth Kostelny, called the loss of the house "tragic and completely unnecessary."

“Many groups and individuals had shown great interest in helping to save and rehabilitate the structure," Kostelny said.

Much of the house's link to the Underground Railroad is based on tradition and oral history. “The house also has some distinct features that lend credibility to it as a place where people could have been hidden — the 6-foot crawl space with fireplace," Kostelny said.

By the morning of May 7, the house's foundation had been removed, leaving a patch of dirt. The demolition is a cautionary tale for Pocahontas residents to be more vigilant about the community's properties, Stewart said.

Pocahontas Island is also on the Virginia Landmarks Register but lacks a local historic district designation, which would have provided more protections.

“Most people don’t like to be in local historic districts, because they want to do whatever they want to their house because they feel it's their right, which is understandable,” Sangregorio said.

Ward was working in Petersburg government when Pocahontas Island received its historic designations in 2006.

The Underground Railroad was far more likely to run over water than over land, Ward said. Pocahontas Island's harbor, its proximity to wetlands and abundance of relatively unencumbered black boatsmen made it a haven for the enslaved seeking to refuge.

As an example of Petersburg's history as a stop on the Underground Railroad, Ward cited what became known as the Keziah Affair of 1858, a foiled attempt to ferry enslaved people from Petersburg to freedom on that two-masted vessel.

“The stories of the past — especially stories of important parts of our history like the Underground Railroad — are difficult to tell without having a building to help you tell it," Ward said. "This building and its survival would have helped us tell that story."

What happened won't be forgotten, Kostelny said, "but the tangible evidence of that history is now gone forever."

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