In 1875, Jewish immigration to Petersburg increased dramatically. Jewish families from other towns had migrated here, and many of them founded congregations. By 1876, there were about 163 Jews living in Petersburg. At the time of the first synagogue’s construction, the congregation had 37 members, representing 19 families. In addition, there was a Sunday School, and many congregations hosted musical performances. While the number of congregations varied, Petersburg’s Jewish community is characterized by its enduring sense of community.
The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, started on Washington Street. After the Civil War, many freedmen settled in Petersburg and the Freedmen’s Bureau established new facilities for these freedmen, including a mental health hospital. After the Civil War, the U.S. Federal Government repaired the railroads to Petersburg. In 1868, Saint John’s Episcopal Church was founded. The church’s cemetery is the second-largest in the country.
After Myers and Samuel established their settlement, Petersburg continued to welcome Jewish merchants, most likely of German descent. As the city grew into a bustling port city, exporting cheap goods across the Atlantic, Jewish-owned merchants were at the center of this economic activity. These merchants included overseas traders as well as retailers of dry goods. By the 1840s, nearly all of Petersburg’s Jewish residents worked in this industry. And as a result, their presence in the town was highly visible.
The history of Petersburg is replete with notable residents and places. Some notable people in the city include: John Mercer Langston, an abolitionist, political activist, and educator. In addition, he was the first president of Virginia State University. Other notables who lived in Petersburg include William Mahone, a 19th century railroad builder and former mayor of Petersburg. Afemo Omilami, a singer, was born and raised in the town. The late Nancy Davis Reagan, a young schoolgirl, lived here until she was thirteen.
The old town district in Petersburg is a pedestrian-scaled area that is a National Register of Historic Places. The architecture here is diverse and the buildings are being adapted to new uses. In fact, the area has been featured in Southern Living magazine and HGTV’s What You Get For Your Money. The city’s civic leaders are focused on promoting tourism as an economic driver. In addition to the tourist industry, the federal government is a major employer in the area. Fort Lee is the site of the United States Army Sustainment Center of Excellence.
The town has played an important role in African-American history. Pocahontas Island, the state’s oldest free black settlement, was located in Petersburg. In the early 1950s, the city’s Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker became friends with Martin Luther King, Jr., and later co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Both men were influential forces in the movement leadership in the South. The Petersburg Improvement Association was named after him, and was modeled after the Montgomery Improvement Association in Alabama.
The Jewish population in Petersburg underwent significant shifts during the late nineteenth century. Many Jews from other areas of the country fled pogroms in Poland and Russia and sought asylum in the United States. Many of these new immigrants practiced more traditional Jewish practices than their German counterparts. Some of them organized Orthodox minyan services, which were held in the old Library Hall. In addition, the men would be separated from the women during the High Holidays.