View Full Version : Post-War Petersburg's History

Emmanuel Dabney
02-03-2008, 08:49 AM
Workshop focuses on Petersburg’s lost history

PETERSBURG — In doing research for her book, “Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in Post-Emancipation Virginia,” Dr. Jane Dailey, a professor of history at the University of Chicago, noticed something was missing in a part of American history.

Major Gen. William Mahone and the Readjuster Party, which was focused on Petersburg during Reconstruction, was largely absent from some history texts.

“William Mahone is easy to wipe out,” Dailey said. “He is selectively remembered.”

The general absence of a part of Petersburg’s history was a topic touched upon in the third public panel between the Virginia State University Institute for the Study of Race Relations/history department and the city of Petersburg.

“Freedom, Economics and Religion: Race and the African-American Experience in the Context of the Atlantic World — The Case of Petersburg, Virginia,” is a collaborative effort to use Petersburg as a case study on African-American history.

An aspect of the study is four two-day workshops. Some parts of the workshops, such as the public panels are open to the public.

Overall, the panel, which attracted about 50 people, was good for its exchange of information, said Dirk Philipsen, a professor of history at Virginia State University and one of the founders of the university’s Institute for the Study of Race Relations.

“The key is we have to know more about Petersburg,” Philipsen said.

Before revisions to the Virginia Constitution in 1902 that began the Jim Crow era, Dailey said that many black men voted and held office in Virginia. Although these rights that were granted during Reconstruction are relatively known, she said that they caused a problem to some in justifying disenfranchising blacks in the first half of the 1900s.

“Petersburg doesn’t fit into the post-Civil War history so well,” she said. “I felt it was something worth showing.”

Mahone, who was a railroad magnate, Confederate General and went on the lead the Readjuster Party, strove to promote education and helped to engage blacks in state government, Dailey said.

The demise of the party led to about 80 years of rule by the Democratic Party in Virginia.

Members of the audience posited that the shift in the political wind could have led to some of the demise of the city as it entered and went through the 20th century.

“There was an internal negativity about Petersburg,” said Dulaney Ward, who was a part of the panel. “That’s been one of the most powerful forces in Petersburg’s history.”

Despite that, the panel agreed that this alone did not pinpoint the changes that occurred in the city.

In the next workshop and afterward, work will be done to review the historic causes for some of the problems in the city.

Along with the workshops, other aspects of the study include helping to compose a resource package, an educational Web site, produce a model for teaching local history in a global context, and instructional materials in American history for secondary and post-secondary teachers. Another goal is to create a history center for the city as well.

“I really hope we can make a serious contribution to the revitalization of Petersburg,” Philipsen said.

The final public panel is scheduled to be held in Union Station March 29 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Dr. Adolph Reed Jr., a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, will be the outside scholar for that panel. The topic will be “Education and Economics, 1950-Present.”

Virginia State University received a $30,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in early 2007 to begin this study.

For more information on the workshops and the Institute for the Study of Race Relations, contact Philipsen at dphilips@vsu.edu or 524-6999.

The Institute for the Study of Race Relations was formed at VSU in 1997 as a research and educational facility.

• T. DeVon Robinson may be reached at 722-5160 or at trobinson@progress-index.com.

©The Progress-Index 2008

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