William Mahone

William “Billy” Mahone At the forefront of education for young African Americans

Mahone was a civil engineer, railroad executive, soldier and politician

Mahone’s background

Born in Southampton County, Mahone attended the Virginia Military Institute. As a young man, he was prominent in the building of Virginia’s roads and railroads. As chief engineer of the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad, he built log-foundations under the Great Dismal Swamp that are still intact today. According to local tradition, several new railroad towns between Norfolk and Petersburg (including Waverly, Wakefield, Zuni and Ivor) were named after the novels of Sir Walter Scott, a favorite author of Mahone’s wife Otelia. The Southside Depot in Petersburg was headquarters for the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad beginning in 1858.

In the American Civil War , Mahone served as a Confederate general. He was best known for regaining the initiative for the Battle of the Crater July 30, 1864, and his counter attack turned the engagement into a disastrous Union defeat. After the war, he returned to railroad building merging three lines to form the important Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio Railroad (AM&O) headquartered in Lynchburg in 1881, the AM&O was reorganized and named Norfolk and Western.

As a politician Mahone led the Readjuster Party, a coalition of blacks, Republicans and conservative Democrats, and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1881. His willingness to caucus with Republicans cost him some support from the white electorate, as did his lenient treatment of African Americans.

As a major political leader in Virginia, Mahone was able to arrange for money to be directed to found a school to prepare teachers to educate black children and former slaves near his home at Petersburg, where he had earlier been mayor. The Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute eventually expanded to become Virginia State University.

VSU founded in 1882 was the developed into the first fully state-supported four year institution of higher learning for black Americans in the United States.

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Written by Clay Hamner for The Petersburg Preservation Task Force.

Featured image provided by Petersburg Preservation