Bricks and mortar efforts toward saving Petersburg’s Jarratt house began earlier this fall on Pocahontas Island. The house is the oldest standing building within what is considered the oldest freed African American community in the nation. Talking to Wayne Covil, reporter for CBS 6 News, Kate Sangregorio, Preservation Planner for the City of Petersburg, said that with the exception of a roof replaced after the 1993 tornado, much of the two hundred year old original fabric remains intact.
Origins of the Jarratt House
John Wilder, a white merchant, built this two-story brick duplex with side passage units on Pocahontas Island circa 1820. At the time, Pocahontas Island was a thriving economic urban center with houses, warehouses and wharfs populating the landscape. Situated in the middle of the Appomattox River, the port contributed to the vibrancy of this community, and aided in its association with the Underground Railroad, which helped self-liberated former enslaved people find ways to travel north to freedom.
After Wilder’s death, both halves of the house changed hands between several white male slave owners. Lavinia Sampson, a member of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, who may have also had African American heritage, purchased the northern half of the dwelling in 1853 and the southern half in 1862. The house then came into ownership of the Jarratt family; one of the first free Black families on Pocahontas Island, and they would own the house for over 100 years.
With the establishment of the rail system, river based commerce became obsolete. Then, Pocahontas Island’s population slowly relocated, and its buildings were abandoned. More recently, tornadoes, earthquakes and a general decline has taken its toll on the historic fabric of this community. Most recently, the demolition of a house tied to the Underground Railroad brought renewed attention to the fragile nature of the community.
Preservation Virginia recognized Pocahontas Island as a 2014 Virginia’s Most Endangered Historic Place. Our announcement took place in the shadow of the Jarratt House. Following the announcement, the City of Petersburg began to develop a plan to stabilize and rehabilitate the Jarratt House.
Saving the Jarratt House
Since that announcement, the City, with funding from the Cameron Foundation and CDBG funds, engaged Gray and Pape to undertake a Historic Structures Report to guide the restoration project and to develop a three-phased plan to achieve its vision for public access to the Jarratt House. In September, Daniel and Company began to secure the envelope of the building’s masonry and roof.
Stabilization of the Jarratt House is the first step in the City’s ultimate vision to extend its network of museums to Pocahontas Island. Complementing the existing privately owned Pocahontas Black History Museum and expanding the Appomattox River Trail, the fully restored Jarratt House will become a place where visitors can learn about the African American history and culture of the Island and surrounding region.