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Petersburg Public Library (Dodson House)
Built for John Dodson, a mayor of Petersburg, the double-pile, center-hall Italianate house has elegant marble mantels and a curved stairway. In the post–Civil War era, Confederate general and railroad entrepreneur William Mahone lived here and he entertained Robert E. Lee during the 1867 wedding festivities of his son. After the war, Mahone became a leader of the Readjuster Party, which was opposed to repaying Virginia's prewar obligations incurred to build canals, turnpikes, and railroads. Repayment would bankrupt the already impoverished state and, perhaps, not incidentally, harm Mahone's railroad interests (see DW16). By allying himself with Republicans and African Americans, he managed to wrest control from the state's Conservatives.
In 1924, William R. McKenney's family, who then owned the house, donated it as a segregated (whites only) public library. In 1960, when several black ministers tried to use the library, some were arrested. Following a mass protest meeting, the library was reopened on an integrated basis. This was considered the turning point of the civil rights movement in Petersburg and was followed by sitins at various locales.
Nearby at the corner of E. Wythe and S. Sycamore streets is the monument to Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a free black import/export merchant in Petersburg. In 1829 Roberts emigrated with his family to Liberia where the American Colonization Society appointed him that country's first black governor. After he spearheaded the Liberian movement for independence, he was elected the first president of the republic in 1847.
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