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Walk through history and see Olde Towne’s origins and it’s continued evolution.
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African Americans from Portsmouth made significant contributions to the early and present history of the city, region, and nation. Their influences and contributions are traced from the Revolutionary War, Civil War, both World Wars, through segregation, the fight for civil rights, right up through the Black Lives Matter movement. The people of Portsmouth added greatly to the fields of eduction, journalism, arts and culture, sports, politics, national security, and more. This article examines Portsmouth’s places and people of interest when learning more about Black History in America.
Located at 637 North Street in Olde Towne Portsmouth, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is the oldest of any black denomination in the City of Portsmouth. The congregation dates to 1772 when it was known as the African Methodist Society. It met independently until Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831. Afterward, they met with local white methodists for about three years and then under white supervision until 1864. Members occupied a methodist church on nearby Glasgow Street until it burned in 1856. About a year later, both slaves and Free Blacks provided the labor and funding to build the church that currently serves the congregation. In 1871, the congregation adopted the name “Emanuel” (meaning God with Us) and became part of the African Methodist Episcopal movement.
Since the church is not open for tours except for special occasions, you can only view it from the exterior unless you attend a service. Inside, you will find most of the architectural detail was crafted by hand. There are nine hand-chiseled posts supporting an upper gallery that’s surrounded by wrought iron railing. The wooden pews were built to fit together without nails or glue. From the outside, you can see the six stained glass windows on the front of the church.
Emanuel A.M.E. Church was an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Men and women seeking their freedom from the tyranny of slavery would often use the secret door located in the sanctuary that led to a hiding place beneath the church or enter the attic through the choir loft and hide until it was safe to move on.
Portsmouth is one of Virginia’s oldest and most historic seaports. Since the 1600s, the waterfront has seen the importing and exporting of goods from around the world. Slaves often landed here and were sold at markets just a few blocks away. Conversely, it is a port where many of these same slaves found their path to freedom on the Underground Railroad. There were many agents on the Railroad who would assist the slaves in their effort to board ships heading north out of Portsmouth. One such agent was Eliza Bains. A member of the African Methodist Society at Emanuel A.M.E., she also worked at the Crawford House Hotel, a luxury hotel on the Elizabeth River (The Crawford House apartments, a new building, sits on the same site at the corner of Crawford and London Streets). She used her proximity to the waterfront and secretly reported the arrivals and departures of ships so that travelers along the railroad could sneak aboard ships heading north to freedom. As you walk through Olde Towne today, notice the homes at 300 and 316 North Street. Both were known stops for slaves to hide before they boarded the ships. You can even take a virtual tour of Portsmouth’s Underground Railroad “Tracks of Our Tears” sponsored by the African American Historical Society of Portsmouth, Virginia.
Want to meet the hero of the Battle at Great Bridge, Billy Flora, or maybe the most important Black spy of the American Revolution, James Armistead Lafayette? Well know you can with Portsmouth’s living history group Mary Veale and the Colonials.
James Lafayette was the most important spy of the American Revolution. James Armistead, at the request of the Marquis de Lafayette, posed as a runaway slave to General Cornwallis. In this way, he was able to gather vital information on important troop movement, aiding George Washington in winning the war.
Billy Flora was born to Free Black parents and was the owner of a livery stable at the corner of London and Middle. He was both respected and well-liked by the Portsmouth citizenry. A hero of the Battle of Great Bridge, he fought under Colonel William Woodford.
The Portsmouth Museums and the Portsmouth Public Library worked together to develop virtual learning about Portsmouth’s Black History.