Portsmouth is home to more than 300 years of African American history. In the earliest years of Portsmouth, freed and enslaved African Americans lived together in the city. Remarkable African patriots from Portsmouth served during the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. Portsmouth also became a site on the Underground Railroad, providing safe havens for African Americans seeking independence and freedom. After the Civil War, African Americans established Lincolnsville, a community that included homes, educational sites, benevolent organizations and businesses, all signs of African American resilience. Until its demise, some of Portsmouth’s most important history makers – educators, musicians, writers, and political leaders – lived in Lincolnsville. At the spiritual center of this community was the Emanuel AME Church. Throughout Portsmouth, there are African American churches, historical sites, monuments and highway markers that attest to the contributions of the Portsmouth African American community.
Below are some helpful links and resources for more information.
African Methodist Society (Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church)
Enslaved residents who were members of the African Methodist Church, later known as Emanuel A.M.E. Church, escaped from Portsmouth aboard vessels that plied the waterways that headed to points north. These freedom seekers included Clarissa Davis and her two brothers William and Charles, and sister. Also, members such as Anthony Blow and Moses Wines were recorded to have escaped. Operatives like Henry “Bluebeard” Lewey and Eliza Bains, are credited with assisting many of the Church’s members, especially in the 1840s and 50s. The Church’s records indicated that their membership was depleted in the 1840s because of the large numbers who escaped. Moreover, other accounts, such as the book written by William Still and WPA oral histories of Portsmouth residents, discussed the interaction between the Church and the Underground Railroad.
Address: 637 North Street, Portsmouth, VA 23704
Ebenezer Baptist Church
On the first Sunday in January 1865, John W. Godwin, Dennis Morris, and his wife and son, along with Phillip Ackins, John Williams, and Susan King secured the use of Temperance Hall, at the corner of South and Middle Streets, held services and organized themselves as the First Colored Baptist Church of Portsmouth, and worshipped there during the closing days of the Civil War.
Address: 728 Effingham Street, Portsmouth, Virginia 23704
Zion Baptist Church
Zion Baptist Church, among the oldest of the African American congregations in Portsmouth, was organized in 1865, some two years after the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves in the Confederate states was signed by President Lincoln. The original pioneers, numbering 318, having known a basement form of worship, were amicably granted a letter of separation from the white mother church, Court Street Baptist.
Address: 728 Effingham Street, Portsmouth, Virgina 23704
The African American Historic Cemeteries of Portsmouth Virginia
Established in October of 2010, this young foundation is helping to provide for the valuable restoration and preservation of the City of Portsmouth’s traditionally African American cemeteries and raise awareness of the notable accomplishments of the many historic figures buried in these cemeteries.
National Park Service – Network To Freedom
Wherever slavery existed, there were brave and dangerous efforts to escape. So, from its inception, the Park Service’s Network To Freedom Program has been a unique effort to honor and commemorate the people of the Underground Railroad, past and present, creating a network of historic sites, educational programs and research facilities.
Virginia Foundation for the Humanities Exploring: African American Heritage
The Underground Railroad in Virginia – Race Time and Place
It was in Virginia — with its interwoven waterways and bustling port cities — that hundreds of African Americans began their secret effort to flee slavery and the South. Fugitive slaves left Norfolk, Portsmouth, Richmond, Alexandria, and other points throughout the state as they sought freedom on the Underground Railroad.
Portsmouth, Virginia (Black America Series)
African Americans in Portsmouth built a strong, insulated community because they were cognizant of the need to look inward. Whether assisting the pre-Civil War escapes through the Underground Railroad, forming banks, publishing a newspaper, or providing recreational facilities, Portsmouth’s African Americans created one of the most stable middle-class black communities in America. Early 20th-century leaders such as Dr. William Reid, Nancy T. Wheeler, and the Reverend Harvey N. Johnson Sr. were civic models and guiding forces for a community emerging from the ravages of slavery, and enduring the hardships of segregation.
Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a Norfolk native and historian; Mae Breckenridge-Haywood, a Portsmouth native and retired librarian; and the African American Historical Society of Portsmouth, have culled photographs from a variety of collections and coupled them with an informative text to tell this remarkable story.
Available from the authors, or in the Gallery Shop at the Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center.
Umoja – Annual African American Culture and Heritage Festival
Umoja means Unity. Come celebrate it at the Annual African American Culture and Heritage Festival promoting Cultural Diversity and Unity in Portsmouth, Virginia. Event takes place Memorial Day weekend at nTelos Wireless Pavilion & Festival Park.