In the immediate vicinity of the Sutherland house, there is a rich history from which one can narrate important chapters in the arc of American history.
The Sutherland house sits at the center of land that was subdivided in 1785 to form the community of Ravenscroft. Ironically, as the last great battle of the Civil War would be fought within a mile of its streets, Ravenscroft got its start as a racially integrated neighborhood. In the late 18th and early 19th century, the Methodist Church and First Baptist Church were influential in the settlement of the first free African-Americans in Ravenscroft. In the late 1780s, the anti-slavery Methodist Church advocated for the emancipation of slaves. Two of Ravenscroft’s streets — Harding, where the Sutherland house sits, and Gressett, the street running parallel to Harding behind the property — were named for Methodist slave owners who freed their slaves during this period.
One block north, soldiers from the Norfolk Light Artillery Blues were stationed throughout the Civil War. Willie, the Sutherlands’ then-teenage daughter, kept an autograph book that evidences the soldiers’ frequent visits to house.
Two blocks north sits the Wallace house, where President Abraham Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant met on April 3, 1865 to discuss the inevitable end to the Civil War in what would be their last meeting before Lincoln’s assassination.
Between the Sutherland house and the Wallace house is the Halifax Triangle, or “the Avenue,” which from the
1870s to the 1970s was the region’s center of African-American commerce and culture. Joseph Jenkins Roberts worked as a young man in the Halifax Triangle before emigrating to lead the newly formed nation of Liberia as its first President. One block west of the Sutherland house is Peabody High School, chartered in 1880 as Virginia’s first publicly supported high school for African-Americans. By the early 1900s, the Ravenscroft neighborhood had transformed from racially integrated to predominately African-American, including both working-class and professional residents.
Two blocks away are First Baptist Church (founded in 1774) and Gillfield Baptist Church (founded in 1797), the first and second oldest black congregations in the city and two of the oldest in the nation. These churches and others formed the moral center for the Civil Rights Movement in Petersburg, which attracted multiple visits from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker, the pastor of Gillfield Baptist Church, and King co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
Only a few doors down from the Sutherland house is the Harding Street Recreational Center, one of two venues for African-American musical talent in Petersburg during the 1950s and 60s. The center hosted performances by artists on their way to national acclaim, including Chubby Checker, The Temptations, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Dionne Warwick, James Brown, and many more. Hermanze Fauntleroy lived in a house half a block east of the Sutherland house until his death in November 2010. Mr. Fauntleroy was elected mayor of Petersburg in 1973, becoming the first African-American mayor in Virginia.
Today the neighborhood around Sutherland House is once again in transition, anchored, in no small part by restoration of Sutherland House itself. The Harding Street Recreation Center has become the Harding Street Urban Agriculture Center in which vegetables are grown in pure water and fresh fish produced for sale, while
members of the community study skills such as carpentry and plumbing to help rehabilitate the old building. The team leading the project is now planting orchards in empty lots.
Under the leadership of Dr. Robert A. Diggs, Sr., Pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church, and the Restoration of Petersburg Community Development Corporation, new family and senior housing is growing from formerly vacant lots, enabling long-time residents to remain in the neighborhood even as it continues its revitalization.