One man’s quest to preserve the haunting black history of Pocahontas Island

One man’s quest to preserve the haunting black history of Pocahontas Island

The Washington Post

Gregory S. Schneider

POCAHONTAS ISLAND, Va. — He roams from house to house along the quiet streets of this little neighborhood, giving voice to its history and spirits. The collection of modest homes, tucked between an empty lumber factory and an abandoned rail yard, doesn’t look like a rare and haunted place.

But in Richard Stewart’s eyes, Pocahontas Island is alive with an unexpectedly dramatic past. Using a black magic marker, Stewart scrawls the words of 12 generations of ancestors on old porch rails, doorways and window frames.

“Ain’t no looking back master I’m at the promised land.”…

…Outside, Stewart has bought the small house next door, which he said was built in the early 1800s by a mixed-race man whose white mother sold him into slavery as a child because she couldn’t be seen with him. Stewart painted it pink and yellow and covered it with words and pictures related to Nat Turner.

At least one man who helped Turner’s bloody slave rebellion in 1831 in nearby Southampton County hid, for a time, in the woods on Pocahontas Island, Stewart said…

…Stewart talks about slavery in an offhand way that can seem jarring. He credits his stature and strong build to what many regard as the myth of selective breeding. In colorful terms, he tells how mixed-race children were sent to live on the island: “We had a lot of out-of-wedlock mulattos over here. You might have seen a child walking along over here white as snow, and [the] mama walking along dark as a bag of coal.”…

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