Thomas Jefferson's Monticello

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Slavery at Monticello Tour

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These guided outdoor walking tours focus on the experiences of the enslaved people who lived and labored on the Monticello plantation. Included in the price of admission.

Reservations for this tour are not required. Tours begin on Mulberry Row near the Hemmings Cabin (view a map of Monticello for visitors ).

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ADDRESS: 931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway Charlottesville, VA 22902 GENERAL INFORMATION: (434) 984-9800

Slavery and Tourism in Virginia

Representing the heritage of slavery may be the toughest challenge at historical sites in Virginia.

Civil War re-enactments were common across Virginia after the centennial in 1961-65, with people dressing in period uniforms. Typically the re-enactors were all white men, often older and heavier than the soldiers they represented. Units re-enacting the US Colored Troops (USCT) were rare. The enslaved people that supported Confederate officers in the 1860's were invisible in the re-enactments.

At Colonial Williamsburg and various historic sites in Virginia, characters dressed in costume present historical interpretation. Only after 2000 was it possible to find characters interpreting the institution of slavery. Obviously, no historic site is going to re-enact the whippings and other cruel punishments imposed upon recalcitrant slaves, but in the Twentieth Century the institution of slavery was marginalized in historic interpretation. It was easy to find a famous Virginia plantation house that offered no more than passing comments about the majority of people who lived there.

Some historic plantations such as Mount Vernon have built re-creations of slave cabins and marked the locations of slave graveyards. Other than Mount Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier, Colonial Williamsburg, and the Booker T. Washington Memorial, however, few sites in Virginia dedicated substantial resources towards presenting the slave experience to modern visitors before the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. The colonial plantations along Route 5, between Richmond and Williamsburg, preserve the houses of the wealthy gentry. Tourism marketing highlighted the life of the wealthy who lived in those homes. Tourists were expected to be less interested in struggling with their emotions if challenged to explore the difficult lives of the majority of residents at those sites, the enslaved workers.

Gunston Hall is owned by the state of Virginia, but interpretation there is provided by a non-government partner. The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America and the state government have restored the plantation house at great expense, but in 2020 the dwellings occupied by slaves who worked the fields was largely missing from the interpretive landscape. The story of slavery was not omitted completely at Gunston Hall, but a visitor could easily learn about George Mason's life without understanding why he had so much free time to write letters about political philosophy and quarrel with George Washington.

Smithfield Plantation in Blacksburg mimicked the Gunston Hall approach. That plantation was founded in the 1770's not just by Col. William Preston, but also by slaves that he purchased and brought west of the Blue Ridge.

In the 1840's, a Preston descendant bought slaves in Norfolk and brought them west to Smithfield Plantation. A slave in that group from Norfolk named Jim Barbour sought to escape and ultimately drowned in the Ohio River. For years, visitors to the plantation could learn the story of the Prestons without getting the story about slaves like Jim Barbour, but as noted in news article: 1's impossible to tell the story of Jim Barbour without telling the story of the Prestons at Smithfield.

Colonial Williamsburg seeks to provide an authentic representation of colonial life, but its first efforts to demonstrate interactions between slaves/masters stimulated strong reactions from tourists. Some visitors interrupted historic presentations to challenge the "slave" to explain why they are not setting a "good example" to children by asserting basic human rights. Colonial Williamsburg may have considered it to be an interpretive success to engage visitors so deeply and to get them to discover the limited choices in the 1770's for enslaved people, but getting guests upset is rarely a successful business model. 2

One solution was expensive: double the number of interpreters and put one in traditional garb acting as a slave, but have another interpreter in modern dress. The interpreter acting as an enslaved person could avoid breaking out of character, while the interpreter in modern dress could articulate the context and history of the "peculiar institution" of slavery.

Former governor Douglas Wilder (the first African American to be elected governor in the United States, and the grandchild of a slave) had plans to make the story of slavery into a major tourist attraction by opening a museum of slavery. He flirted with locating the U.S. National Slavery Museum in the Jamestown area, where slaves first arrived in Virginia. He then rejected Richmond, and selected Fredericksburg. 3

Wilder chose Fredericksburg in part because it was closer to the population center in Northern Virginia, but also in part because the major developer in Fredericksburg donated 38 acres for the museum at the "Celebrate Virginia" development. Wilder's fundraising efforts to build a museum failed, and after a few sculptures were installed no construction was ever started.

Wilder was too busy as mayor of Richmond to build a museum in time for the 2007 commemoration of the last 400 years of English settlement in Virginia, and his prickly personality was a factor as well. During the major recession starting in 2008, the City of Fredericksburg lost patience and rejected Wilder's request to eliminate the property taxes on the museum site. That led to a series of lawsuits over control of the 38 acres. 4

The slavery museum project went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2011. Bankruptcy temporarily blocked Fredericksburg from selling the property in order to collect the property taxes. In 2013 the parcel was supposed to be transferred to a new owner, who obtained city approval to build a baseball stadium on the site and would pay the back taxes. That transfer was supposed to end plans for a slavery museum in Fredericksburg.

The saga continued, however. The ballpark plans collapsed when site development cost far exceeded initial estimates and the Hagerstown Suns dropped plans to move the Class A baseball team to Fredericksburg. In 2015 the city renewed efforts to force a sale of the 38-acre site and collect over $650,000 in back taxes and interest. 5

The failure in Fredericksburg triggered a new effort in Richmond to locate a slavery museum there. In 2014, Governor Wilder endorsed building a location in Shockoe Valley near the old Lumpkin Slave Jail. The former governor was famous for his independent streak, which limited the willingness of others to work with him. He failed to tell the Virginia Commonwealth University about his plans before he recommended that the National Slavery Museum be located in a building currently being used by the VCU medical school. 6

Virginia missed its window of opportunity to open a slavery museum before the Smithsonian Institution opened the $250 million National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in 2016.

If a slavery museum is ever completed in Richmond, attendance will demonstrate if there is a large-enough audience interested in slavery to support such a museum just 100 miles away from the Smithsonian facility. The design of the museum, as well as the distance, will be key factors. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has demonstrated that competition from Federally-supported art museums100 miles away does not limit the ability of Virginia facilities to thrive in Richmond.

In 2020, Richmond officials dedicated $2 million for the planning and design of a slavery museum in in Shockoe Bottom, next to Main Street Station. That area included the site of Lumpkin's Slave Jail ("Devil's Half Acre") and the historic center of the marketing of enslaved people. Total cost of the planned museum was estimated initially at $20-$50 million.

By the start of 2022, the city was planning a $200 million complex, and there were commitments of $40 million in state and local funding. A feasibility study produced: 7

...conceptual plans for a four-story, 100,000-square-foot building featuring interpretive galleries, classrooms, a genealogical center and the archaeological remains of Lumpkin's Jail.

Governor Wilder was not the first to experience failure by trying to interpret slavery. The Walt Disney Corporation proposed to incorporate the slavery experience in the "Disney America" theme park. The park was planned for western Prince William County, near Haymarket and not far from DC.

Why there, rather than in Charleston, South Carolina or near Jamestown? Disney hoped to attract some of the tourists that already came to Washington, DC. Disney America might grow into a destination resort over time, drawing visitors just to see the theme park - but in the short run, the facility would benefit from tourists already coming to the national capital.

The historical community opposed the Disney America project. The primary concern was protecting Manassas National Battlefield Park from development similar to sprawl surrounding Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. The Disney publicity campaign to soften opposition was damaged when a spokesman, referring to the historical accuracy planned for the theme park, suggested visitors would get an authentic experience: 8

We want to make you feel what it was like to be a slave or what it was like to escape through the underground railroad.

The idea of visitors getting an authentic experience with slavery, as either master or slave, was not helpful to the company's effort to generate political support. Disney abandoned the Disney America proposal in 1993, and the site was developed into residential subdivisions..

In 2010, Governor Bob McDonnell triggered a public relations uproar when he issued a proclamation at the request of the Sons of Confederate Veterans declaring April to be Confederate History Month. McDonnell's proclamation was designed in part to increase tourism during the 150th Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, but his statement did not mention slavery. The omission stirred memories of similar proclamations by Governor Allen and Governor Gilmore, which were perceived as racially insensitive. McDonnell quickly apologized for the omission, and in his final budget proposed $5 million for a slavery museum in Richmond.

Governor McDonnell sought to support tourism in Virginia through commemoration of African-American heritage, as well as through commemoration of the Civil War. Left unclear is whether tourists are interested in slavery. One assessment is that slavery and tourism, to many Americans, do not mix , and one historian even titled an essay "Nobody Knows the Troubles I've Seen, But Does Anybody Want to Hear about Them When They're on Vacation?" 9

Fredericksburg officials debated since 1924 whether to maintain one local memento of slavery, the slave auction block on the corner of Williams and Charles streets in the city's downtown. The chamber of commerce proposed removing in in order to increase tourism. In 2019, two years after the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville remobilized public concern about the reminder of slavery, City Council finally decided to move the sandstone block off the public street and place it in the Fredericksburg Area Museum. 10

Plans to incorporate the story of enslaved workers at the Executive Mansion, the home of Virginia's governor in Richmond, advanced during the terms of Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam. New staff was hired and the kitchen in the building’s annex, where enslaved children as young as 10 and enslaved adults worked 15-hour days, was revised to serve as the center of interpretive tours that told a more-complete story of life in the house. The initiative was put on hold after the election of Glenn Youngkin as governor in 2021. He reassessed plans for the kitchen to be converted into an educational room for schoolchildren, and the historical specialist in charge of the project resigned her position.

While underway, the project identified roughly 20 descendants of enslaved people who had worked at the mansion, and at plantations of governors who brought them to the mansion. The director of community initiatives for Virginia Humanities commented about the project's capacity to reveal the landscape of slavery: 11

This isn't a box to check... This is something that's integral to the story of the Executive Mansion.

Confederate Monuments in Virginia

Fredericksburg slave block, history-oriented tourism, a monument in petersburg honoring a british general who invaded virginia in the revolutionary war, monuments honoring "yankees" in virginia, slave trade in virginia, slavery in virginia.

  • AtlasObscura
  • Abandoned National Slavery Museum
  • Business Week
  • A Cause That Scares Business (August 14, 2006)
  • City of Richmond
  • Slave Trail Commission
  • International Coalition of Sites of Conscience
  • Richmond Times-Dispatch
  • Fredericksburg property for slavery museum at risk (March 2, 2010)
  • Shockoe Bottom considered for slavery museum (February 26, 2009 - and note the slant towards the Richmond point of view in the Richmond paper)
  • Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project
  • National slavery museum project stalls (March 18, 2008)
  • Virginia Tourism Commission
  • Richmond Slave Trail
  • Monument to Shame ( Virginia Business , January 2002)

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Virginia is home to the longest continuous experience of Black life and culture in the United States spanning more than four centuries – beginning before the first English settlement at Jamestown and through the Revolutionary War, Civil War, Emancipation and the Civil Rights eras.

Learn more about Black history across Virginia at the museums and sites listed below offering permanent exhibits and tours.

Black History Trail


Hampton & Newport News In August 1619, the first recorded Africans arrived at Point Comfort, site of Fort Monroe in Hampton, after being forced from their villages in present-day Angola and pushed onto a Portuguese slave ship headed for the New World.  Read More

Fort Monroe  was dubbed “Freedom’s Fortress” for protecting runaway slaves during the Civil War and is recognized as a national monument for the origin and endpoint of slavery. Learn more about the arc of freedom at the  Casemate Museum  and new Fort Monroe Visitor and Education Center.


Visit Emancipation Oak, where President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was first read to Hampton's people, at  Hampton University , founded in 1868 as an institute of higher learned for newly freed blacks. The university museum is the oldest and largest African American museum in the nation and features artifacts and contemporary art from countries and cultures worldwide.

In the sanctuary of Hampton's  Little England Chapel , the only known African-American missionary chapel in the state, see a short video and collection of photographs and materials that help explain the religious lives of post-Civil War Black people.

To learn about the first Black U.S. aviators, visit the  Virginia Air & Space Center  and see the photographic exhibit of Tuskegee Airmen.

In  Newport News , tour  The Newsome House Museum , which commemorates J. Thomas Newsome, one of the first African-American lawyers to argue before the Virginia Supreme Court. Learn about the heroics of African-American soldiers at the  Virginia War Museum , and talk with a bucket maker about life as a freed Black in colonial times at the  Mariners' Museum .

Williamsburg At Jamestown in 1625, a woman named “Angelo” (Angela), was one of the first Africans listed in a colony-wide census as living in the household of Captain William Pierce of New Towne. Visit the  Angela Site at Historic Jamestowne  where archeologists are excavating the site of Pierce’s property to learn more about Angela’s world.


During the Revolutionary era, most African Americans lived in the Chesapeake region, about 50-60 percent of the overall population. Visit  Colonial Williamsburg  and learn about the people who worked on tobacco plantations and large farms at the Slave Quarter at Carter's Grove.

Visit  Jamestown Settlement  and  American Revolution Museum at Yorktown  to learn about an African family who lived at Jamestown. An estimated 100,000 African Americans escaped, died or were killed during the American Revolution.

Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, and Suffolk In nearby  Norfolk , visit West Point Cemetery to view the  Black Soldiers Memorial , honoring Union veterans of the Civil War. At nearby  Norfolk State University , the largest predominately Black university in the nation, find an exhibit on enslaved persons at the Lyman Beecher Brooks Library.

In  Portsmouth , take a walking tour past the  Emanuel A.M.E. Church , furnished with benches hand cared by slaves. Stop by the  Portsmouth Colored Community Library Museum . Here you can find memorabilia, photographs, books and journals of Portsmouth's Black heritage.

See the  Medal of Honor Monument  that honors 11 soldiers, including Sgt. Charles Veal with the 4th U.S. Colored Troops who served at the Battle of New Market Heights in 1864.

While in  Chesapeake , stop by the only visitor center in Virginia with an Afro-Union and Afro-Virginian repository theme, the  J. J. Moore Visitor, Archives & Family Life Center .


In  Suffolk , the  Great Dismal Swamp  was a waystation on the Underground Railroad, and a pavilion dedicated to it stands 3/4 of a mile down Railroad Ditch Road. Recent archaeological excavations now show that self-emancipated slaves created communities here as early as 1680. Dodging snakes and slave catchers, these people lived on high ground.


Richmond Richmond, trace the slave trade from Africa to Virginia and onward throughout the United States until 1860, take a walk along the  Richmond Slave Trail .

American Civil War Museum at Historic Tredegar  is the gateway to Civil War travel in the region. A National Historic Landmark and one-time heart of Confederate war production, the site offers an interactive exploration of the Civil War on both the local and national levels through the perspectives of Union, Confederate, and African American participants.

For special exhibits on African-American life during the Civil War, visit the ACWM -  Museum of the Confederacy .


Discover one of the country's foremost African-American communities,  Jackson Ward , known as "The Harlem of the South" and Birthplace of Black Entrepreneurship. While there, visit the  Home of Maggie Walker , the  first female  bank president in America and see a newly unveiled bronze statue of Walker. Also, visit the  Black History Museum and Cultural Center  which celebrates the rich culture and moving histories of Black people in Virginia.

The nearby Bill "Bojangles" Robinson statue recognizes the dancer best known for his tap dancing with child-star Shirley Temple.

A popular addition to  Monument Avenue , considered to be one of the most beautiful boulevards in the world, is the statue of tennis star Arthur Ashe. A few blocks away, view African art at the  Virginia Museum of Fine Arts .

The  L. Douglas Wilder Library and Learning Center  at Virginia Union University documents the life and career of Virginia's 66th governor and the first elected Black governor in U.S. history.. Wilder was the first elected African-American governor and currently serves as Richmond's mayor.

The  Jackson Blacksmith Shop  was built in 1880 by Henry Jackson, a freed slave. It was passed down through the generations until the 1970s. It is now listed on the Virginia Register of Historic Places.

Petersburg The  Joseph Jenkins Roberts Memorial  commemorates independent Liberia's first president. Travel through  The Triangle , Petersburg's African-American business center for more than a century until the 1970s. After Reconstruction, African Americans formed their own separate society with banks, drugstores, barbershops and even the Rialto Theater.

Gillfield Baptist Church , with what is believed to be the oldest handwritten Black church record book in America, opens its archives to interested visitors.

Petersburg National Battlefield  is where a number of Civil War battles occurred between June 15, 1864 and April 1, 1865. About 40,000 slaves were promised their freedom if they agreed to fight for the South. Also, 187,000 African-Americans served in the Union army. Of those, the greatest concentration of U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) was at Petersburg.

Pamplin Historical Park & The National Museum of the Civil War Soldier  sits on the property where the last battles of the Civil War occurred. See plantation life reenacted at Tudor Hall and the Military Encampment with full-scale earthworks dug by the slaves and military demonstrations. Plan to spend the day, because there's so much to see and do.

Pocahontas Island  was one of the earliest predominantly African-American neighborhoods. The first enslaved people were brought here in 1732 to work in the tobacco warehouses. In 1797, free Blacks lived there, too. The National Park Service: "Petersburg was considered to have the largest number of free Blacks of any Southern city at that time. Many of the freedmen prospered there as barbers, blacksmiths, boatmen, draymen, livery stable keepers and caterers."

Farmville and Lynchburg Farmville  is the home of the  Robert Russa Moton Museum , where a student strike in 1951 spurred the lawsuit of  Brown v. The Board of Education case in 1954, a hallmark in the civil rights movement. Before you head that way, see the  Virginia Civil Rights Memorial  on Capitol Square in Richmond. It was erected in 2008 to honor the actions of 16 year-old Barbara Rose Johns of Robert Russa Moton High School.


Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest  is his octagonal retreat near the Blue Ridge Mountains. Archaeologists have excavated four slave cabins at Poplar Forest, including both single family log cabins and a duplex for extended families. Learn about those who labored for Jefferson’s happiness through a guided enslaved community tour. Dig deeper through an Archaeology Behind-the-Scenes Tour or Barrels, Bottles and Casks Tour.

About an hour's drive to  Lynchburg , tour the  House and Gardens of Anne Spencer , the noted Harlem Renaissance poet and civil rights activist. Don't miss the special exhibits highlighting African-American involvement in the city's history at the  Legacy Museum of African American History  or the opportunity to take a Black History Walking Tour of the  Old City Cemetery .

Charlottesville Area To the north in  Charlottesville , take a tour of the  University of Virginia , founded by Thomas Jefferson and home to the Carter Woodson Institute, named for the "Father of Black History."

Thomas Jefferson's Monticello , lets you glimpse into Jefferson’s life and many accomplishments, as well as the paradox he lived by illustrating “all men are created equal” while enslaving more than 600 people over the course of his life. Mulberry Row, once the industrial “main street” of the 5,000-acre agricultural enterprise, has been restored to represent the lives of the enslaved. See Monticello through the lens of the Hemings Family, the best documented enslaved family in the United States, through special guided tours and the new exhibit,  The Life of Sally Hemings , Jefferson’s concubine who not only bore several of his children but successfully negotiated their freedom as well.

Nearby, at James Monroe's home,  Highland , tour the restored slave quarters, and discover Monroe's views on slavery and his involvement in the establishment of Liberia 1817.


James Madison's home in Orange,  Montpelier , is the site for archeological digs, primarily around the original home of Mount Pleasant, which was built by slaves in 1723.  The Mere Distinction of Colour  exhibition, located in the cellars and south yard, examines the paradox of America's founding era, exploring slavery to connect the past to the present through the lens of the Constitution.


Fredericksburg and Mount Vernon In  Fredericksburg , take one of two self-guided walking tours that leads past a slave auction block, or visit a Black history exhibit at the  Fredericksburg Area Museum .

At George Washington's  Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens , tour the Greenhouse slave quarters and the slave burial ground. Through household furnishings, art works, archaeological discoveries, documents, and interactive displays,  Lives Bound Together  demonstrates how closely intertwined the lives of the Washingtons were with those of the enslaved.

Alexandria and Arlington Farther north in  Alexandria , visit the  Freedom House Museum ,  Alexandria Black History Museum  and  African-American Heritage Park  featuring a sculpture group of bronze trees, Truths that Rise from the Roots Remembered by sculptor Jerome Meadows and acknowledges the African Americans who contributed to the growth of Alexandria.

Virtual Tour of the Freedom House Museum in Alexandria:

At the  Museum at Gum Springs Historical Society  in  Fairfax County , see the community started by West Ford, a former slave of George Washington, which is the oldest African-American community in Fairfax County, established in 1833. Located near Mount Vernon, it was a sanctuary for freed slaves and runaways.

Journey along the Black History Tour of Alexandria. Stops include the Franklin & Armfield Slave office and the  Stabler-Leadbetter Apothecary .

The  Manassas Industrial School/Jeannie Dean Memorial  has an information kiosk and a bronze model outlying the foundations of this historic site. Also, look for the African-American exhibits at the  Manassas Museum .

Nearby, the  Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier County  is an African-American Museum and Genealogical Resource Center.


Africans first came to Virginia in the early 1500s — almost a century before the English permanently settled Jamestown in 1607 — as explorers and as members of Spanish and French Jesuit missions. By 1600, the first Melungeons were documented in the southern Appalachian valleys. The Melungeons were the first people, aside from Native Americans, to move into Virginia's Appalachian region. Many of the Melungeons were of Portuguese ancestry, with North African and Native American traits.

The  Appalachian African-American Cultural Center  features historical artifacts from the African-American experience in the Heart of Appalachia region.

Booker T. Washington was born on a tobacco plantation as a slave child. Learn about his early life, emancipation and his many accomplishments at the  Booker T. Washington National Monument , which is overseen by the National Park Service.


Historic Christiansburg  includes the Christiansburg Industrial Institute, a private primary school for African-Americans established in 1866 that was once supervised by Booker T. Washington. Visits to the Cambria Historic District, the Montgomery Museum and the Lewis Miller Regional Art Center are musts!

The  Pulaski County Courthouse  features the local history of Black people, developed by Lucy Harmon, wife of Chauncy, an early civil rights advocate in the 1950s.

When you stop in  Bristol , be sure to tour the  Nyumba Ya Tausi-Peacock Museum , home to African artifacts and local Black memorabilia, slave items and more.

Located just outside of  Covington , the  Longdale Recreation Area  was completed in 1940 and dedicated as the "Green Pastures Recreation Area," an NAACP-requested site for African-American use at that time. The dam, bath house, picnic shelter and two restroom facilities are original to the site.

In  Roanoke , the  Harrison Museum of African American Culture  is on the first floor of the first public high school for African-American students in Southwest Virginia. The museum aims to preserve and interpret the achievements of Black people in Southwestern Virginia with archives and collections of memorabilia, photographs, oral stories, and African and contemporary art.

In  Bedford , the  Bedford Historic Meeting House  still has its original side door, stair and gallery, once used by slaves for the religious and educational purposes in the decades following the Civil War.


Also, in Bedford, see the  National D-Day Memorial , dedicated on June 6, 2001. Bedford was selected as the memorial site because the city lost more citizen-soldiers per capita on D-Day than any other city in the nation.


Near the Virginia-North Carolina border in  Clarksville , see one of the oldest remaining slave quarters in Virginia at  Prestwould Plantation , where a large collection of slave writings and records remain.

To the north in  Prince Edward County , visit  Twin Lakes State Park , once the only Virginia state park for Black people. Today, the park offers six miles of hiking and biking trails, picnic areas, campsites, a swimming beach and fresh-water fishing.

Representing more than 100 years on  Martinsville's  Fayette Street, the  Fayette Area Historical Initiative African American Museum  was created to collect, preserve and interpret the local Black experience. FAHI also displays images representative of Black history on the national level.

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slave tours in virginia

A Black history tour of Alexandria, Virginia

Once a hub of the domestic slave trade, the city now has more than 20 Black-owned businesses

  • Featured Trip Guides
  • Things to do in...

Created by Roadtrippers - June 17th 2021

Written by Tracy Hopkins

A bout a 4-hour drive from New York City—and less than 10 miles from Washington, D.C.—Alexandria is an easy road trip destination. Gaps in the city’s historical tourism offerings inspired John Taylor Chapman, a city councilman and fourth generation Alexandrian, to launch his Manumission Tour Company (“manumission” means release from slavery) which focuses on the area's Black history. Through walking tours like Chapman's and thoughtful conversations with several Black business owners, here's how to get a closer look at Black life in Alexandria (both past and present).

Manumission Tour Company

Alexandria, VA

Manumission Tour Company offers several 90-minute walking tours, including “Still’s Underground Railroad.” Based on abolitionist William Still's 1872 book The Underground Railroad, the tour recounts the stories of several fugitive slaves from Alexandria and ponders who might have helped them on their road to freedom.

1 Threadleaf

Threadleaf, an ethical fashion boutique in Old Town is owned by Nicole McGrew, a former attorney for the Obama administration. The meticulously-curated sustainable women's clothing and accessories shop opened in 2018.

2 Wrought, Knit, Labors, Legacies

Olalekan Jeyifous’ public art installation in the historically Black Parker-Gay neighborhood links the city’s mercantile and industrial history with the labor of free and enslaved African Americans.

Edmonson Sisters Sculpture

Sculpted by artist Erik Blome, this striking bronze work pays homage to the teenage Edmonson sisters who were born into slavery and jailed in the adjacent Bruin Slave Jail when they tried to escape

4 African American Heritage Park

This 7.6 acre park features The Truths that Rise from the Roots—Remembered tree sculpture, created by artist Jerome Meadows, carved with the names of Black Alexandrians who shaped the city.

Goodies Frozen Custard & Treats

Goodies Frozen Custard & Treats is a newer addition to Alexandria’s Black business community. Brandon Byrd started with a vintage food truck before he purchased and transformed Commerce Street’s historic Ice House into a stunning 1950s-inspired custard shop. Locals line up around the block for fresh and creamy scoops of the Wisconsin-style frozen dessert and Goodies’ signature donut sandwich (an apple cider donut stuffed with vanilla frozen custard and topped with caramel).

6 Freedom House Museum

This National Historic Landmark was the headquarters for the largest domestic slave trading operation in the nation. Between 1828 and 1861, thousands of enslaved African Americans passed through this site.

7 Harambee Books & Artworks

Harambee Books & Artworks is an independent bookstore located on a quiet residential block in Old Town, Alexandria. Owner Bernard Reeves' mission for the small-but-mighty bookstore—which specializes in rare and out of print books, children’s books, current bestsellers, and apparel and artwork by people of African descent—is to uplift and enlighten the community with cultural knowledge.

Alfred Street Baptist Church

Alexandria’s oldest African American congregation was founded in the early 19th century in the city’s first Black neighborhood, called “The Bottoms.”

9 Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery

Between 1864 and 1869, this served as the final resting place for about 1,800 African Americans who fled to Union-occupied Alexandria during the Civil War. Some of the original graves are still intact, and the memorial park is anchored by artist Mario Chiodo's breathtaking sculpture The Path of Thorns and Roses , an allegorical depiction of the struggle for freedom.

Alexandria City Hall & Market Square

Once a site of slave auctions, today Market Square is home to a bustling Saturday farmer’s market.

Banner Photo Credit: John Carluccio | Roadtrippers Magazine


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Tour company, statue of the edmonson sisters, alexandria's black history, manumission -  the act of freeing or the state of being freed from slavery, servitude,etc., explore alexandria's past with us.

Want to leave a tip for your tour guide?

Join Manumission Tour Company to travel the streets of historic Old Town Alexandria and hear the little-known stories of Africans and African-Americans, both enslaved and freemen, at a time when Alexandria, Virginia was one of early American's main centers for the international and domestic slave trade.

Manumission Tour Company curates guided cultural heritage tours designed to highlight Alexandria’s extensive African American History. We offer guided walking tours every weekend from February thru December. We would love to take your group on a personalized tour or provide step-on tour services for your bus trip!  Tour times & tickets can be found on this website, but also at the Ramsay House Visitors Center in Old Town

Find out more about our tours and other services HERE

Click the " Book Your Tour Today" button to see the available tour dates. 

Adults                              $15

Children (12 and under)     $ 12

slave tours in virginia

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slave tours in virginia

Listen to Elegba Folklore Society’s Program Director Omilade Janine Bell as she speaks on the Trail of Enslaved Africans.

Living History, Richmond’s Slave Trail – via

In the beginning…  virginia , along the trail of enslaved africans                 & other notable sites, reserve for your group.

Journey into Richmond’s history to visit the sites where few monuments exist.  These newly marked sites tell the other half of the story; the story that lives between the pages of history books — in red, white and black.  An interactive experience along the Trail of Enslaved Africans, attendees have the chance to ponder the impact of enslavement on the enslaved as shared in their own words and from their own view.  Embarking by bus after a contextual visit to the Society’s cultural center, participants will walk in our ancestors’ footsteps from their arrival point at river’s edge into Shockoe Bottom, the area of Richmond that housed the holding pens, jails, blocks and burial ground.  The interpreters will interweave the narratives of enslaved Africans with the historical record, characterizations of the day and music.  Disembarking from your bus  and   along the walk, participants will have the chance to immerse themselves in past occurrences that impact our perspectives today.

Enhance the experience to explore the African presence in the Civil War.  Interrelate dates, times and places with what you think you know.  Get ready for the “Aha! moment.”  Gain new perspectives about conflict, courage and commitment.

Extend the experience into Historic Jackson Ward, Richmond’s first professional African American residential and business district.  Visit the Black History Museum, the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site or historic churches.  Include a memorable tour of the campus of Virginia Union University. See the prestigious art gallery and the Governor L. Douglas Wilder memorabilia collection. Photograph the Arthur Ashe, Jr. monument, visit the civil rights monument at Capitol Square or take in related exhibitions at your choice of Richmond museums.

While we will tailor our guidance to satisfy the touring program you seek, as is, the basic tour, before the enhancements, requires three and one-half to four hours.  Please encourage participants to wear comfortable shoes and dress. After departing E l e gba Folklore Society’s Cultural Center, the sites along the trail occur in a wooded area along the river as well as in urban city settings.  Please be sure to have bottled water. 

We can also provide meals, lodging, water and tour packaging services that include help with transportation.

Our Soul Lives Here

The tour unfolds from the comfort of the bus and invites participants to visit sites of African American memory — homes, churches, schools, theaters and more. Meet those who lived and worked inside, getting a glimpse of the times; of biography and social life. Learn the stories of the black architects who created lasting testaments of our presence. Feel hoisted by all who made something out of nothing, and then who passed the baton to us. Our soul lives here — in the dirt that remembers our footsteps, in the work of our hands, in the lament of our hearts, in the accomplishment of our minds and in our belief. Carter G. Woodson said, “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”

Our step-on guide hosts the experience and may be joined by additional step-on portrayers of living history.

In The Footsteps of Maggie Walker

Elegba Folklore Society creates and guides this cultural history tour as a contextual biography of Jackson Ward luminary, Maggie Lena Walker. Evolutionary from her birthplace in Church Hill to her elevation in Historic Jackson Ward, attendees have the chance to ponder black excellence and community building in early 20th century Richmond in light of its significance today.

Participant Comments:

“Mind boggling!  I have learned more about slavery today than in my lifetime. We should all go through this experience to be in touch with some of what our ancestors went through.”

“I am blessed, truly blessed.  This tour opened my eyes.”

“I would recommend this program not to just African Americans but to people of all races.  Black history is everyone’s history.”

“Even though I am a citizen of Trinidad, it affected me a great deal.”

“Insightful and profound.  The music, enactment and acting made this experience more intense.”

“I applaud your knowledge and the artistic way you share it.  None of this information is in the history books.”

“Words cannot express what gift you have given to our group.  Who would have known that the work would have changed so many and so profoundly?”

“My emotions ran the gamut — pain, anger, resentment, joy.  The presenters are a gift of God.”

slave tours in virginia

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400 Years Forward: African American Heritage Tour – Hampton, VA View All Itineraries

Take a road trip to Hampton, Virginia and experience historic museums, fort, and sites that illustrate the perseverance of the human spirit.  In 2019, Hampton, Virginia commemorated the 400th anniversary of the first African landing in English North America. Now, you can experience Hampton’s rich African American heritage sites on the 400 Years Forward tour.  

slave tours in virginia

Arrive in Hampton and visit Fort Monroe National Monument . It was on this site in 1619 at Old Point Comfort that “twenty and odd” Africans first arrived on Virginia soil. More than two centuries later in May 1861, Major General Benjamin Butler accepted three runaway slaves under the declaration that they were “contraband of war” and would therefore not be returned to their owners. As news of this extraordinary development spread, Fort Monroe quickly earned the nickname “Freedom’s Fortress.”

From the beautiful natural landscape and rich historic past, come visit to see all that Fort Monroe has to offer:

  • Fort Monroe Visitor and Education Center 

Start your tour of historic Fort Monroe at the Fort Monroe Visitor and Education Center. The Center is designed to welcome and orient visitors and provide interpretive exhibits, research, and archival resources. The Center tells the stories of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to English North America in 1619 and the culmination of 242 years of slavery as the first contrabands came to Fort Monroe to receive their emancipation. Visit the First Africans in Virginia Marker, the site in 1 619, the first ship carrying “20 and odd” enslaved Africans arrived at Point Comfort in Virginia, where Fort Monroe is today.

  • Casemate Museum

Fort Monroe, the largest stone fort ever built in the United States, was completed in 1834. Within the walls of the fort is the Casemate Museum, which chronicles the military history of Fort Monroe. The museum features the room where Jefferson Davis was held briefly as a prisoner following the American Civil War, highlights the 1861 “Contraband of War” decision that granted three enslaved men, and thousands who followed, sanctuary at Fort Monroe, earning it the nickname “Freedom’s Fortress.”

  • First Africans Marker

The first Africans in English North America arrived here at Old Point Comfort in August 1619 aboard the ship, White Lion. The Africans brought with them their languages, cultures, and traditions that along with their presence would forever change the course of the United States.

  • Walking Tour of Fort Monroe

Leisurely explore 21 unique sites full of history, architecture, and nature on a self-guided tour of Fort Monroe. Beginning at the Casemate Museum, you’ll make your way to stops like Quarters No. 1, where President Abraham Lincoln stayed for four nights as he and others planned the attack on Norfolk during the American Civil War; to the Water Battery, which housed 42 cannons as part of the fort’s defenses.

Visit the Hampton History Museum . Even as the history of Hampton is aligned with major events in American history, so too is the city’s history intertwined with the story of African Americans in this country. From the Seventeenth Century Gallery with its commentary on the coming of the first Africans to Virginia in 1619 through the descriptions of black sailors on merchant ships and the bravery of the slave Cesar Tarrant in Virginia’s Revolutionary War Navy, each gallery addresses the contributions of African Americans to Hampton history.

Continue your tour with a visit to the Emancipation Oak on Hampton University’s waterfront campus. A living symbol of freedom for African Americans and a National Historic Landmark, the expansive Emancipation Oak is located at the entrance to Hampton University. The Emancipation Oak is said to be the site of the first Southern reading of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. At 98 feet in diameter and designated as one of the “Ten Great Trees of the World” by the National Geographic Society, it continues to be an inspiration. 

Discover Aberdeen Gardens , a historic neighborhood built for and by African Americans in 1935 as part of F.D.R.’s New Deal Settlement. The Aberdeen Gardens Historic Museum Museum preserves the neighborhood’s rich heritage and honors the original residents.  Out of the 55 New Deal communities proposed and constructed at the time, Aberdeen Gardens was the only Resettlement Administration community for Blacks in Virginia. The iconic neighborhood is listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. 

*Due to Covid-19, attractions may be experiencing different operating days and hours. Please check local listings before visiting. 

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Quarterly meetings start at 10 a.m. and end at approximately 2 p.m. with a working lunch.

slave tours in virginia

More to the Tour: Slave History at Virginia's Plantations

slave tours in virginia

In addition to museums, battlegrounds and presidential homes, tourists find history at dozens of plantations that are open to the public. 

Often they learn about the big, elegant homes at the heart of those properties – about the people who lived there, but how do mannerly tour guides introduce the harsh subject of slavery?

While their friends were haunting the beaches of Florida or otherwise celebrating spring break, three students from the University of Mary Washington joined geography professor Stephen Hanna and students from two other schools to visit five plantations on Louisiana’s River Road.

“Up until ten years ago, it was the Gone with the Wind narrative.  We learned a lot about white owners and their furnishings and their architecture, and if slaves were mentioned they were ‘servants’ – period.”

Now, however, Hanna says many have begun talking about the slaves who made plantations possible – like the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana.

“This is one of the few plantations that has a slave-centric narrative.  The whole focus is understanding the experiences of the enslaved working on a plantation,  rather than being sort of after thoughts.”

That tour does not begin in the big house.

“You start with the wall that commemorates the people who were enslaved there  and tells you a little bit – whatever they can find about their backgrounds and then  you move in and learn about the slave cabins, you learn about how hard the agricultural work was, and then you go to the kitchens and you learn about the domestic enslaved men and women, and then you spend the last 15 minutes of an hour and 45 minute tour in the big house, where you learn what often 10, 11, 12-year-old children had to do to get a hot bath ready for the lady of the house.”

slave tours in virginia

Hanna thinks it’s important that visitors learn about slavery and bring that new found knowledge to our thinking about modern day social problems and race relations in this country.

”Basically three of ten whites of the millennial generation still buy into the idea that African Americans are lazier than whites.  Almost four in ten said that blacks were less well off due to their lack of motivation.  When we forget about slavery, we forget about the roots of those stereotypes.  We forget about how those were forged as justification for enslaving men and women, and the other thing, by forgetting about slavery we forget that slavery extracted wealth from these individuals for generations.”

Students Xavier Griffin and Meredith Stone found people at the plantations did want to know about the lives of American slaves.

“There was a little hesitation, of course, because It’s an uncomfortable topic for some people.  I understand that.  People really care about the emotions of the enslaved, and people want to know more than the original woodwork in the house, and I think that’s really telling of the changing relationships in America.”

What’s more, the world can get a better understanding than what Hollywood has to offer – whether it’s Gone with the Wind, Twelve Years a Slave or Django Unchained .  Student Ian Spangler says tourists came a long way to do that.

“People coming down from Canada – people coming across from France and Germany, states that were very far away within the U.S. and all of them were coming here to these plantation museums to sort of  see these histories and theses stories, and they’re very excited about it, but I think that’s very reflective of how big a  microphone these plantations have and  how much they affect how we perceive history today.”

The researchers will share their findings with plantation operators in Louisiana, then begin visits to properties in South Carolina and Virginia with a grant from the National Science Foundation. 

slave tours in virginia

slave tours in virginia

1-800-378-1571 |  Your Connection to Williamsburg

Colonial Connections in Williamsburg VA

"African American Heritage" - Adult Tour

Destinations:, williamsburg, jamestown, newport news, hampton, charles city county and richmond.

Call us today at 800.378.1571 or request information .

Day 1 - Jamestown

Meet your colonial connections tour manager at historic jamestowne.


Guided tour of Historic Jamestowne focusing on the arrival of Africans to Virginia in 1619 and the Royal African Company responsible for supplying slaves to Jamestown

A National Park Service site, Historic Jamestowne offers a wealth of activities for exploring the first permanent English settlement in North America. Overlooking the scenic James River, Historic Jamestowne boasts the only remaining 17th-century above ground structure – the church tower - and reconstructed 17th-century Jamestown Memorial Church. See the original site of the 1607 James Fort and more than 1,000 artifacts at the Archaearium, a museum of Archaeology.


Guided tour of Jamestown Settlement focusing on the Africans from the Kongo/Angola region of West Central Africa, their cultural origins, their interactions with the English in Virginia and the 17th-century Virginia culture they helped to create

At Jamestown Settlement, comprehensive gallery exhibits describe world events and social and economic conditions that led to the English colonization of America and the formation of the Virginia Company that sponsored Jamestown with a goal of earning its investors a profit. Learn about the land and lifestyle of Algonquian-speaking tribes in coastal Virginia under the powerful leader Powhatan and about the culture of the first documented Africans in Virginia. Outdoor living-history areas bring the 17th-century to life – the re-created Powhatan Indian Village, re-created James Fort, Riverfront Discovery Area, and full-size replicas of the Susan Constant, Discovery and Godspeed - the three ships that brought settlers to Virginia in 1607.

Check-in to your Williamsburg hotel (includes round-trip baggage handling)

Choose from limited to full-service properties with exterior or interior corridors, indoor or outdoor pools, with deluxe continental breakfast or full breakfast buffet, priced from budget and moderate to deluxe.

Dinner and optional shopping (on own)

Dining and shopping available at Merchants Square, High Street, New Town, Premium Outlets and Yankee Candle Village.

Return to the hotel.  Colonial Connections Tour Manager departs.

Day 2 - williamsburg, deluxe continental breakfast at your williamsburg hotel, depart for colonial williamsburg with your colonial connections tour manager.


Guided tour of Colonial Williamsburg, the Revolutionary City, including Great Hopes Plantation

Explore the nation's largest living history museum. From 1699 to 1780, Williamsburg was the political and cultural center of Britain's largest colony in the New World. In the shops, taverns, government buildings, homes and streets,  George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Mason and other Virginia Patriots debated the ideas of liberty, independence, and personal freedoms  that led to the founding of American democracy and inspired generations of Americans and others from around the world.

In 1979, Colonial Williamsburg became a pioneer in the presentation of 18th-century African-American history. Thirty years later, the story of Williamsburg’s free and enslaved African-American residents remains an integral part of programming throughout the Historic Area. During your visit, you’ll have an opportunity to interact with free and enslaved Virginians as they debate and discuss the events leading up to American independence. At Great Hopes Plantation, you’ll learn through a hands-on experience how most Virginians lived more than 200 years ago.

Lunch provided in a Colonial Tavern

Taverns were not only an integral part of colonial life in America, but were also a necessity. The modes of travel and transportation of the day mandated the location of a tavern every few miles on the main thoroughfares. Each of the operating taverns located in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area is inspired by a different style of colonial-era cooking.


Continue self-guided tours of Colonial Williamsburg, the Revolutionary City

Return to your hotel to relax before dinner, dinner provided at pierce’s pitt bbq.

Since 1971 people have enjoyed going to Pierce’s Pitt for delicious, hickory-smoked, Tennessee style Bar-B-Que made with “Doc” Pierce’s original Bar-B-Que sauce. It all started when Julius C. (Doc) Pierce set out from Flat Creek, Tennessee for Virginia with his family and their prized bar-b-que sauce recipe. He settled in Williamsburg and opened Pierce’s Pitt and the rest, as they say, is history! Now whenever there’s good times, good laughs and good eatin’ Pierce’s is often part of it.

“African-American Music” at Great Hopes Plantation

Appreciate and understand the music, songs, and dances of the 18th-century African-American community which borrowed from the many cultures of Africa and Europe. In the 18th-century African-American community, there were opportunities for everyone to participate, whether it was singing, dancing or playing an instrument. Keep the rhythms, sing the songs and dance the dances adapted from the West African people during colonial America.

Day 3 - Newport News, Hampton

Depart for newport news with your colonial connections tour manager.


Visit the Virginia War Museum

American military history unfolds at the Virginia War Museum. Outstanding collections of personal artifacts, weapons, vehicles, uniforms, posters and much more, trace the development of the U.S. military from colonial times through the present. The “Marches Toward Freedom” gallery explores the roles of African-Americans in the military since 1775. One such soldier was James Bowser, a free black who fought in the Revolutionary War. Future generations of his family would continue his tradition of military service and many would remain in the Coastal Virginia region. Photographs and personal artifacts from members of the famous Tuskegee Airmen are also featured in the gallery.


Visit the James A. Fields House

James A. Fields (1844-1903) was a born a slave in Hanover County, VA. In 1862, he and his brother escaped slavery and found refuge at Fort Monroe in Hampton. His restored home is historically significant for its long association with the development of the social and civic life of the African-American community in Newport News. In 1908, four doctors pooled their savings and asked the Fields family for use of the top floor to start a hospital. From these modest beginnings, Whitaker Memorial Hospital was born. Other than the city jail’s infirmary, this institution represented the only outlet for hospitalization of blacks and provided two years of generous service to the black community.


Visit the Newsome House Museum & Cultural Center

The Newsome House Museum & Cultural Center is the restored 1899 residence of the African-American attorney J. Thomas Newsome and his wife Mary Winfield Newsome. Mr. Newsome was a respected attorney, journalist, churchman and civic leader, and prospered as part of the postwar Civil War south's new urban African-American middle class. His elegant Queen Anne residence served as the hub of the local black community from which he led the fight for social justice within Virginia.


Lunch at the Peninsula Town Center (on own)

The Peninsula Town Center reinvents an enclosed mall as an open-air destination. Enjoy a diverse mix of restaurants and retailers.


Guided tour of Fort Monroe and the Casemate Museum

The largest stone fort ever built in the United States Fort Monroe National Monument spans the American story through the 21st century: American Indian presence, Captain John Smith’s journeys, a safe haven for freedom seekers during the Civil War, and a bastion of defense for the Chesapeake Bay. The Casemate Museum located within the historic fort's stone walls chronicles the history of the fort and the Coast Artillery Corps. During the Civil War, Fort Monroe was a Union-held bastion in the center of a Confederate state and helped shelter thousands of slave refugees earning it the nickname Freedom’s Fortress. See the cell where Confederate President Jefferson Davis was imprisoned.


Visit Hampton University Museum and Campus including a stop at the Emancipation Oak

Founded in 1868, the museum is the oldest African-American museum in the United States and one of the oldest museums in the state of Virginia. The collection features more than 9,000 objects including African-American fine arts, traditional and African, Native American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Island, and Asian art, and objects relating to the history of Hampton University.

Emancipation Oak is a historic tree located on the campus of Hampton University. In September 1861, the peaceful shade of the young oak served as the first classroom for newly freed African American men and women eager for an education. In 1863, the Virginia Peninsula’s black community gathered under the oak to hear the first Southern reading of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation leading to its nickname as the Emancipation Oak.

Depart for Williamsburg

Dinner provided at golden corral.

Golden Corral® family-style restaurants offer the biggest buffet and grill available anywhere. Their famous buffet contains an array of food choices including hot meat options, pasta, pizza, fresh vegetables, salad bar, a selection of carved meats and fresh baked goods and tempting desserts.

“Papa Said, Mama Said” at Colonial Williamsburg

Experience a moving program in which 18th century free and enslaved blacks reflect on lessons learned through stories told by the elders. This is an interactive program that explores the significance of oral African tradition, Guests participate in the experience featuring recollections of stories that teach moral lessons that have been passed down from generation to generation.

Return to the hotel. Colonial Connections Tour Manager departs.

Day 4 - charles city county, richmond, deluxe continental breakfast at your williamsburg hotel. colonial connections tour manager rejoins group to facilitate check-out and baggage handling., depart for charles city county.


Visit Shirley Plantation (guided house tour, self-guided grounds tour)

Shirley tells the story of the Hill-Carter family, eye witnesses to 11 generations of American history. To this day, the 11th generation continues to own, operate, and work this grand southern plantation. Shirley Plantation is Virginia’s first plantation (1613) and one of the first economic engines of the New World. Enslaved labor played a very important role at Shirley Plantation and slaves were essential to the plantation system. They tended the field, harvested the crops, maintained the house, cooked the meals, and provided the majority of skilled labor including carpentry, masonry and blacksmithing. Today, Shirley continues to be a working plantation, a private family home, a growing business, a National Historic Landmark and a direct link between the past and the present.

Depart for Richmond


Visit the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia

Enjoy lunch on your own in the Jackson Ward neighborhood and visit the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site.

Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia

Founded in 1981 by Carroll Anderson Sr., the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia collects and exhibits artifacts and objects that serve to illustrate the history of Black peoples, with an emphasis on Virginians. Located in the heart of historic Jackson Ward at 00 Clay Street, the museum has a collection of nearly 5,000 artifacts and documents, art and photography.

Maggie L. Walker National Historical Site

The Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site commemorates the life of a progressive and talented African American woman. Despite many adversities, she achieved success in the world of business and finance as the first woman in the United States to charter and serve as president of a bank. The site includes her residence of thirty years and a visitor center detailing her life and the Jackson Ward community in which she lived and worked. The house is restored to its 1930's appearance with original Walker family pieces.


Riding tour of the Arthur Ashe, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Richmond Slavery Reconciliation Statue and Virginia Civil Rights Memorial

Depart for home. colonial connections tour manager departs..

Special events are scheduled throughout the year in addition to Black History Month in February.

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Political Decline and Westward Migration


The Growth of Industry


1825 to 1860


The 550,000 enslaved Black people living in Virginia constituted one third of the state’s population in 1860. Travelers to Virginia were appalled by the system of slavery they saw practiced there. In 1842, the English novelist Charles Dickens wrote of the “gloom and dejection” and “ruin and decay” that he attributed to “this horrible institution.”

A majority of inhabitants in some of Virginia’s eastern counties were held in bondage. In the western counties, rugged terrain made slavery impractical. In 1829, white citizens there demanded representation in a government controlled by easterners with different interests. In 1861, they formed the new state of West Virginia rather than join the Confederacy.

The majority of enslaved men, women, and children provided agricultural labor for their enslavers. Trained craftspeople worked in skilled trades such as coopering, blacksmithing, and carpentry. A smaller group of men and women cooked, cleaned, served meals, and raised the children of the enslaver’s family. On Sundays, enslaved individuals tended to their own gardens and livestock provided by their enslavers, practiced religion, and engaged with family and friends.

Through their families, religion, folklore, and music, as well as more direct forms of resistance, African Americans resisted the debilitating effects of slavery and created a vital culture supportive of human dignity. At the same time, enslaved Black people exerted a profound influence on all aspects of American culture. Language, music, cuisine, and architecture in the United States are all heavily influenced by African traditions and are part of a uniquely American culture.

Slave Religion and Folklore

Throughout slavery and beyond, spirituality and the church served a vital role in Black communities. Religious practices nurtured the soul and fostered pride and identity in the face of the dehumanizing effects of slavery and segregation. Baptist and Methodist ministers preached hope and redemption to enslaved people who fashioned Christian gospels into a communal music of spirituals about salvation, deliverance, and resistance. They also helped preserve African traditions through music, funeral customs, and call-and-response forms of worship. Religious meetings—whether secret gatherings in the woods or church congregations—became crucibles for collective activism.

Enslaved African Americans continued a rich tradition of African parables, proverbs, and legends. Through folklore, they maintained a sense of identity and taught valuable lessons to their children. The central figures were cunning tricksters, often represented as tortoises, spiders, or rabbits, who defeated more powerful enemies through wit and guile, not power and authority.

Music and Food

The musical traditions of enslaved communities merged European practices with intricate rhythm patterns, off-key notes, foot patting, and a strong rhythmic drive. Music was incorporated into religious ceremonies as shouts and “sorrow songs;” “field hollers” and work songs helped coordinate group tasks; and satirical songs were a form of resistance that commented on the injustices of the slave system.

African Americans adapted Indigenous, European, and African food traditions—such as deep-fat frying, gumbo, and fricassee—to feed their own families as well as those of their enslavers. Pork and corn were the primary rations issued to those who were enslaved, but they were supplemented by plants and animals grown or raised or gathered from nearby rivers and fields.

The Slave Trade and Slave Auction

After an 1808 act of Congress abolished the international slave trade, a domestic trade flourished. Richmond became the largest slave-trading center in the Upper South, and the slave trade was Virginia’s largest industry. It accounted for the sale—and resulting destruction of families and social networks—of as many as two million Black people from Richmond to the Deep South, where the cotton industry provided a market for enslaved labor.

Prices of enslaved people varied widely over time. They rose to a high of about $1,250 during the cotton boom of the late 1830s, fell to below half that level in the 1840s, and rose to about $1,450 in the late 1850s. Males were valued 10 to 20 percent more than females; at age ten, children's prices were about half that of a prime male field hand.

The management of an enslaved workforce was a frequent topic of debate among slaveholders. Over time an elaborate system of controls was developed that included the legal system, religion, incentives, physical punishment, and intimidation to keep enslaved people working. None was completely successful.

While slaveholders asserted that their workforce was loyal, they also lived in constant fear of a revolt. White southerners prohibited enslaved African Americans from learning to read, restricted their movement, prevented them from meeting in groups, and publicly punished those who attempted to escape slavery. Slave codes also punished white Virginians who assisted Black people in violating the codes.

Denied their unalienable rights of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, enslaved Americans were trapped in a cruel and unacceptable lifestyle. Some enslaved Virginians instigated organized, armed rebellion or attempted escape, even though success was unlikely and punishments included execution and disfigurement. Most engaged in day-to-day resistance—breaking equipment, stealing foodstuffs, slowing the work-pace. The most effective resistance was the formation of a distinct culture that perpetuated African American traditions of music, storytelling, and cuisine, and was bolstered by strong religious beliefs.

Travelers to Virginia were appalled by the system of slavery they saw practiced there. In 1842, the English novelist Charles Dickens wrote of the “gloom and dejection” and “ruin and decay” that he attributed to “this horrible institution.” Inevitably, the intolerable abuses caused a number to commit suicide. A few initiated rebellion––the ultimate crisis imagined by the slaveowner.

Gabriel’s Conspiracy, 1800

Gabriel was a literate enslaved blacksmith hired out to work in Richmond by his enslaver, Thomas Prosser of Henrico County. With some freedom of movement, access to others enslaved men, and information about uprisings elsewhere, Gabriel planned a rebellion against slavery in central Virginia. Two enslaved men betrayed the plot. In response, white Virginians arrested and prosecuted more than seventy men for insurrection and conspiracy. Gabriel and twenty-five of his followers were hanged.

The Nat Turner Revolt, 1831

Nat Turner, an enslaved preacher and self-proclaimed prophet, led the bloodiest slave revolt in U.S. history in Southampton County. Over the course of two days in late August 1831, he and his conspirators killed 58 white men, women, and children before government troops quelled the insurrection. The state tried and executed Turner and 19 conspirators. White vigilantes retaliated with violence, resulting in about 40 additional deaths.

The event sent shockwaves throughout the nation and deepened the divide over slavery. Defenders of the institution blamed “Yankee” influence and what they believed was the violent character of Black people. Antislavery factions argued that this revolt demonstrated the corruptive effects of slavery and refuted enslavers’ claims of the “contented” slave.

Turner’s revolt also prompted Virginia’s General Assembly to debate the fate of slavery in its 1831–1832 session. Legislators considered proposals for abolition, but ultimately decided to maintain slavery. They also passed new restrictions on Black Virginians, including requiring Black congregations to be supervised by a white minister, and making it illegal to teach Black people to read. This was the last time a government of a slave state considered ending slavery until the Civil War.

John Brown’s Raid, 1859

Led by the radical abolitionist, John Brown, eighteen whites and five African Americans, seized the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) in October 1859. Among them was Dangerfield Newby, a former slave from the Shenandoah Valley. For Newby the cause was deeply personal: his wife and children were still in bondage. After a failed attempt to buy their freedom and fearing their sale to the Deep South, Newby joined Brown’s small army. He was killed on the first day of fighting. Brown’s attempt to take rifles stored there, escape into the mountains, and start a slave revolt failed. Five raiders escaped, ten were killed, and nine—including Brown—were captured and executed. Sectionalist tension heightened as southerners feared additional violence.

The Abolitionist Movement and Manumission in Virginia

A society for promoting abolition was organized by 1790, and publications appeared as early as St. George Tucker’s Dissertation of 1796. The self-criticism and efforts for abolition ended, however, after Nat Turner’s rebellion of 1831. From that point forward, most white Virginians approved of the practice, denied its evils, and defended it as a “positive good.”

In 1782, the General Assembly allowed enslavers to free the people they enslaved. Some did. Many of their manumission documents are written with condemnation of “the injustice and criminality” of slavery: “Being fully persuaded that freedom is the Natural Right of all Mankind and that it is my duty to do unto others as I would desire to be done by in the like situation, I hereby Emancipate and set free the said Slave ______.”

The Colonization Movement

The growing number of free Black individuals in Virginia—more than 30,000 in 1810—challenged the assumption that black skin equaled enslavement. Free persons of color also presented what enslavers feared was a dangerous example. These tensions prompted the 1816 creation of the American Colonization Society, devoted to removing free Black Americans to Africa. A number of white Virginians—including James Monroe and John Randolph of Roanoke—joined antislavery northerners in this effort.

The colonization movement was controversial among Black Americans. As New York City’s Colored American newspaper explained, “This Country is Our Only Home. It is our duty and privilege to claim an equal place among the American people.” In 1830, Liberia had only about 1,400 settlers. Ultimately, 15,000 Black people emigrated and—in some ways—patterned their society after the American South.


Slave Baptism Authorization, December 20, 1828. A letter from a slaveowner was necessary to permit enslaved African Americans to be baptized at Upper Goose Creek Church in Fauquier County. (VMHC Mss4 Up653 b 25)

Banjo, about 1850–1875, 1994.73 The banjo is a uniquely American musical instrument with African origins.

Banjo, about 1850–1875. The banjo is a uniquely American musical instrument with African origins. (VMHC 1994.73)


Painting of a slave auction in Richmond by Lefevre Cranstone, an English observer, about 1859. (VMHC 1991.70)


Newspaper advertisement placed by Thomas Jefferson announcing a reward for the apprehension of the runaway slave Sandy, Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon), September 14, 1769. 

Nat Turner's (1800–1831) slave rebellion

A broadside printed in 1831 to report the Nat Turner revolt, with the headline: “HORRID MASSACRE IN VIRGINIA . . . when FIFTY-FIVE of its inhabitants (mostly women and children) were inhumanely massacred by the Blacks!,” (VMHC Broadside 1831.2)


Bowie knife taken from John Brown at Harper’s Ferry by Lt. J. E. B. Stuart of the U.S. Cavalry. (VMHC 1983.31)


A deed of emancipation written by Richard Rowell of Surry County, 1782, which includes the text, “Being fully persuaded that freedom is the Natural Right of all Mankind and that it is my duty to do unto others as I wou’d desire to be done by in the like situation… I hereby Emancipate… a Slave by the Name of Sarah, aged fifty five Years.” (VMHC Mss3 Su788 a 5)

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Theater | ‘Sanctuary Road’ at Virginia Opera will tell…

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Subscriber only, theater | ‘sanctuary road’ at virginia opera will tell harrowing stories of escapes from slavery, norfolk’s is only the third staging of the opera. conductor everett mccorvey recalls the power of song to bring him even closer to the tale..

The Virginia Opera presents "Sanctuary Road" Friday and next Sunday at the Harrison Opera House. (Photo courtesy of Virginia Opera)

When Everett McCorvey looks at photos of Martin Luther King Jr. surrounded by activists in Montgomery, Alabama, during the 1960s civil rights movement, he sees his childhood.

He lived in a house two blocks from King’s in Montgomery. His father was a deacon at the spacious Baptist church where King held large rallies. McCorvey grew up immersed in the sound of freedom fighters’ singing.

He became a musician and acclaimed conductor, and was recently drawn to the opera “Sanctuary Road,” which tells harrowing stories of men and women who escaped slavery. “I grew up hearing spirituals, and it’s one of the many reasons I feel close to this story, about ‘Sanctuary Road,'” he said.

Friday and next Sunday, he will be the Virginia Opera’s guest conductor in the highly anticipated production.  

The opera is based on the writings of William Still, who compiled 745 accounts of escapes in his 1872 book, “The Underground Rail Road.”

A story from Portsmouth is one of the 10 it tells, conveyed through 17 songs. Those songs will be performed by five actors and a chorus of 40, all backed by the Virginia Symphony.  

“It flies because you’re riveted by all the different scenes and all the different stories that you will hear,” McCorvey said.

Originally written and composed as an oratorio and more like a concert than a play, “Sanctuary Road” premiered as an opera in 2022 at the North Carolina Opera in Raleigh. The music and libretto were written by two Pulitzer Prize winners: Paul Moravec and Mark Campbell, respectively.

McCorvey, who is based in Lexington, Kentucky, and founded the American Spiritual Ensemble, conducted the opera at the Penn Square Music Festival in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The Virginia production will be the show’s third staging.

Everett McCorvey will conduct the Virginia Opera's production of "Sanctuary Road" Jan. 26 and Jan. 28 at the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk. (Photo courtesy of the Virginia Opera)

“The spectacle of it can really only be achieved like that in opera,” he said.

It is the perfect medium, he added — the power of the orchestra. singers’ soaring voices, costumes, lights — for Still’s stories.  

“It touches all of your senses. … It’ll have your blood tingling.”

Still, portrayed by Damien Geter, was a conductor on the Underground Railroad starting in the 1840s. He had close partnerships with abolitionists including Harriet Tubman, who directed recently escaped slaves to Still’s Philadelphia home. He’d interview them about where they were from, how they escaped and their next of kin. He hoped the information he cataloged could one day reunite families. Still then helped them continue their lives as freed people or with their journeys north.

One of the people he interviewed turned out to be his brother, and the moment is portrayed in the opera.

“He asked him, ‘What’s your mother’s name?’ ‘Really, you don’t say? What’s your father’s name?'” McCorvey said. “And he said, ‘You and I are brothers.’ And it’s just such a beautiful moment in the show.”

Of the hundreds of stories Still recorded in his book , 242 are from people who fled Virginia.

Henry “Box” Brown, who packaged and mailed himself from Richmond north to freedom, and Clarissa Davis, who disguised herself as a white man before fleeing Portsmouth by rail, are portrayed in the opera.

Davis procured a white man’s clothing and boarded a train — then realized that the white man sitting next to her was someone she’d served at a dinner the night before. But her costume worked, McCorvey said. The man didn’t recognize her.

“It’s powerful. You can just feel the energy from the stage.”

Colin Warren-Hicks, 919-818-8138, [email protected]

When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 26 and 2:30 p.m. Jan. 28

Where: Harrison Opera House, 160 W. Virginia Beach Blvd., Norfolk

Tickets: Start at $15.45


More programming

At 2 p.m. Jan. 28, a brief overview and history of the Underground Railroad, presented by Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a professor at Norfolk State University. At the opera house.

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