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Remembering Richard Stewart, ‘Mayor’ of Pocahontas Island

A person wearing a striped sweater sits on a porch
City of Petersburg
Richard Stewart, the unofficial mayor of Pocahontas Island, curated a Black History museum in the town he grew up in. Stewart died last week at the age of 79.

Petersburg mourns 79-year-old Richard Stewart, a prominent figure in the city who dedicated his life to preserving Black History.

Legacies are often passed down through the stories and relics one leaves behind. That much is true for Richard Stewart, whose passion is rooted in the ground of his beloved of Pocahontas — a former town located between downtown Petersburg and the Appomattox River. Stewart died last week at the age of 79.

Pocahontas Island is one of the oldest Black communities in the United States. The 70-acre plot of land gave birth to a thriving community of free and enslaved Black Americans when it became a town in 1752. By the year 1800, over 300 people lived in the integrated neighborhood of around 50 homes. Joseph Jenkins Roberts, who in 1848 went on to become the first elected president of Liberia, is among its former residents.

It’s where Stewart grew up after he was orphaned at a young age. He was cared for by the community — and he would later become its guardian.

With money left to him from his family and a military pension, Stewart bought several properties on Pocahontas Island and was dubbed the honorary ‘mayor’ of a nearly lifeless neighborhood.

“This is just what I had to do,” Stewart said in an interview with Petersburg Area Regional Tourism, which posted a video tribute after his death. “It’s just something in me, a spirit in that told me, ‘Richard you got to do this because, if you don’t put this together, ain't no telling what’s going to happen.’”

A person wearing a striped sweater sits in a room crowded with historic object. In the foreground are two books titled "THE HOLY QURAN" and "The Nyew Testament"
City of Petersburg
Richard Stewart sits among his collection.

Step by step, Stewart breathed life back into the neighborhood by repairing old homes, manicuring lawns and furnishing what would become a makeshift museum.

The museum itself, which he founded in 2003, is a collection of relics handpicked by or donated to Stewart over the years. Slowly but surely, people began to recognize his passion and work as new life filled the historic area with visitors and eventually the district was recognized on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.

Stewart’s life’s work was centered around showing the triumphs of free and enslaved Black Americans. Although the city of Petersburg mourns him today, those who knew him say his legacy lives on in Pocahontas.

“He will always be a staple in the City of Petersburg,” said Petersburg Vice Mayor Darren Hill. “We know Pocahontas Island was very dear to his heart, and we’ll make sure his legacy is remembered.”

Correction, April 20: An earlier version of this article misspelled Appomattox River.

Lyndon German covers Henrico and Hanover counties for VPM News.