Ryan Medeiros





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            The City of Colonial Heights was incorporated on March 19, 1948.  Before it became a city, Colonial Heights was an integral part of Chesterfield County as its only town.  Colonial Heights was considered a suburban community within Chesterfield, but citizens petitioned and attended court hearings throughout June and July of 1926 and obtained a court order on July 24, 1926 proclaiming that Colonial Heights will become a town.  On March 9, 1998, Colonial Heights began a month-long celebration of its fiftieth anniversary.  During the opening ceremony, “Mayor Charles E. Townes said in his opening remarks that he [hoped] the residents of the city [would]…learn about the city’s heritage.”[1]  It is highly unlikely that every detail about the city of Colonial Heights was included in the month-long history lesson, because the city’s history is anything but sunshine and roses.  Colonial Heights has a popular nickname, “Colonial Whites,” because the city was established to be a safe-haven for whites in southern Virginia, and not much has truly changed in the city.

Colonial Heights History: Early Stages

            There are two main theories on how Colonial Heights was named, both of which took place during the American Revolutionary War.  The first account is that General George Washington walked along the elevated land just north of Petersburg when he stated that a “town should be built upon the Delectable Heights.”  There is also the theory that during the war, a British soldier in Petersburg spotted Lafayette’s troops on the opposite side of the Appomattox River and shouted, “Look!  There are the colonials, up on the heights!”[2]  The truth to the naming of the Colonial Heights area may never truly be known.  It could have simply been named for the fact that after crossing the Appomattox River going north out of Petersburg, the elevation increases rapidly.

            The history of Colonial Heights, however, stems back much farther than the days of the American Revolutionary War.  It is believed that the first ever inhabitants of the area were Algonquin Indians.  Areas of the city retain the names given by the Indians, including the affluent neighborhood of Conjurer’s Neck, which was named so because the Algonquians believed that one of their magic men had cast spells over the creeks in the area.  Records and writings have been found that show that “British colonists first settled in the area in 1620, approximately two weeks prior to the settlement of Plymouth, Massachusetts.”[3]  Presently on the northern outskirts of the city, Randolph’s Mill (known today as the Swift Creek Mill Playhouse) is believed by many to be the oldest grist mill in America.  Records of its existence date back to 1663, but its actual date of construction is unknown.  It was purchased and renamed Swift Creek Mill in 1929, and operated as a grist mill until 1956.

            What most historians would know about Colonial Heights is part of its most celebrated heritage: the fact that “General Robert E. Lee made his headquarters at Violet Bank from June through September during the siege of Petersburg in 1864.”[4]  Robert E. Lee’s stay at the Violet Bank mansion is what Colonial Heights is most famous for in American history.  Violet Bank was a mansion about half a mile north of Petersburg, and is now a Civil War (and Civil War era) museum.  The official city seal contains an image of the Violet Bank mansion.  The Violet Bank mansion is also famous for its “cucumber tree,” which is well over 200 years old and may have been a gift from Thomas Jefferson.  Also during the Civil War, “Colonial Heights…found its place as an integral part of the Howlett line and Petersburg Defenses as laid by the Confederate engineer, Col. Dumont.”[5]  Skirmishes were a regular occurrence throughout the Colonial Heights area during the Civil War.  Many earthworks from the war can still be found in the city at Fort Clifton, located behind Tussing Elementary School in the area of the city known as Conjurer’s Neck. 

Late 1800s to 1920s, Colonial Heights Becomes a Town

            In 1894, the construction and opening of the Richmond-Petersburg Electric Railway helped spark the permanent settlement of the Colonial Heights area.  Colonial Heights was a small community within Chesterfield County at this time.  Many people worked in Petersburg or Richmond, but wished to live in a setting that was more rural, which is the traditional concept of suburbia.  Colonial Heights became a logical choice for many, because the area can pretty much form a straight line with Petersburg and Richmond.  Expansion of the Colonial Heights area occurred slowly but surely when, “between 1900 and 1920, hundreds of lots were surveyed and platted, though it would be many decades before [all] were sold.”[6]

            The introduction of automobiles also helped greatly to increase the population of Colonial Heights.  A dirt path for automobiles followed the path of the Richmond-Petersburg Electric Railway and became the main street in Colonial Heights.  This street was built on top of the Old Manchester and Petersburg Turnpike which had previously been the Richmond Stage Road.  The Richmond Stage Road had been in existence since the colonial era.[7]  The street, known as the Boulevard, became a part of US Route 1, which ran from Maine to Florida.  Colonial Heights residents opened stands or even small businesses to cater to the passing travelers.  People who worked in the city of Hopewell, just east of Colonial Heights, started to move into Colonial Heights because of the added mobility provided by cars.

            By 1920 there were more than 200 families in Colonial Heights.  The expanded population required more needs from Chesterfield County, and frustration over lack of necessities began.  Harry Lamont Snead moved to Colonial Heights from Chester, a town in Chesterfield County.  He had previously helped form a citizens league in Chester, and “on November 23 1920…he organized the ‘Colonial Heights Citizens League.’”[8]  The league worked to gain many improvements for the community, and one of its first big successes was getting the Boulevard cemented from the north bank of the Appomattox River to the top of the large hill immediately following.  The league also worked to gain access roads to the Boulevard and mail service in Colonial Heights.  In the league’s first year of existence, it accomplished many things including: home delivery of mail after numbering all homes and changing shared street names, activation of two wells to improve water supply in the area for both general consumption and fire protection, installation of electric lights along the Boulevard, and the appointment of a local police officer with the stipulation that the community had to provide a portion of his pay. One of the league’s biggest accomplishments occurred in 1922 when it got Chesterfield County to agree to fully paving the Boulevard.[9]

            Colonial Heights still had troubles that the citizens league could not fix.  As the community grew, more and more water was required.  The Boulevard was the only paved street in the city, so transportation was almost hazardous in many locations.  Also, sanitation was becoming a problem in the community.  The citizens league could not collect taxes for necessary improvements, and Colonial Heights residents were already paying county taxes to Chesterfield.  Not only were members of the community paying taxes to Chesterfield, “by 1925 Colonial Heights residents were paying 40 percent of the taxes in Matoaca District of Chesterfield County, and most of the residents did not think they were receiving an equivalent share of services in return.”[10]  Three factions formed on how to fix the problems of the community with separate ideas on how to do so.  They were: become a town, get annexed by Petersburg, or retain the same status within Chesterfield County and wait for the problems to be fixed.

            The two most popular plans were to become a town or get annexed by Petersburg.  Those in favor of annexation by Petersburg felt that Colonial Heights could not possibly solve the community’s problems without raising taxes.  They believed that become a part of a city, and not a widespread county, would insure that Colonial Heights would be treated as more of an integral part.  Those in favor of becoming a town believed that Petersburg would only want Colonial Heights if Ettrick was included.  Ettrick was in much worse shape than Colonial Heights, so those in favor of becoming a town speculated that Petersburg would help Ettrick before the better-off Colonial Heights.[11]  On June 4, 1926, the three sides met in a Chesterfield court in front of Judge Cox to decide the fate of Colonial Heights.  The trial was continued until July, and several more hearings and meetings occurred until July 24, 1926 when “the three cornered fight which has been waging in Colonial Heights in regard to incorporation, annexation, or having that community retain its same status as a part of Chesterfield County was definitely settled”[12] and Colonial Heights became incorporated as a town within Chesterfield County.  The issue was settled, but “the war is not over in Colonial Heights.  The suburb is divided into too many conflicting factions for general rejoicing over Judge Cox’s decision.” [13]

            When Colonial Heights became a town, Fred Shepherd was elected the first mayor, beating the popular Harry Snead, mentioned earlier.  The first town council met on September 26, 1926, and contained nine members until 1932 when the number was reduced to five.  One of Shepherd’s first big campaigns in the city was to enforce the speed limit on the Boulevard.  With the incredible volume of traffic that went directly through the city because the Boulevard was part of US Route 1, speeding tickets were issued to the point where “the American Automobile Association …claimed Colonial Heights was the worst speed trap on the East Coast.”[14]  Before interstates were constructed, most specifically I-95, the city’s revenue from traffic tickets was between 50 and 80,000 dollars annually.  Travelers became more dependent on vehicles to pass through Colonial Heights when the electric trolley stopped running through the town in 1936. 

            Becoming a town allowed the town council to issue its own taxes on top of county taxes, but to keep the residents happy these tax rates had to be kept low.  Revenue from traffic fines helped greatly, but the town had to grow in order to keep up with demands from its citizenry.  Harry L. Snead had been appointed Town Attorney by Shepherd and the two won annexation suits for the town in 1930, 1938, 1940, and 1942.  More annexation suits came, but they happened when the town became a city in 1948 and then after Colonial Heights was a city 1951 and 1956.  The constant problems of a lagging water supply, the disrepair of streets, and town sanitation led to the formation of factions like those when Colonial Heights was a community trying to decide whether to become a town or not.

Colonial Heights Becomes a City

            The nagging problem of providing an adequate water supply caused the town to file for the annexation of the Lakeview Dam (Lakeview Lake) and surrounding Area.  Fred Shepherd worked hard to secure the area by “getting the Game and Inland Fishery Commission to acquire from VEPCO the dam and lake known as Lakeview on Swift Creek.  Once this was accomplished he annexed the entire area.”[15]  Shepherd successfully won this annexation suit on February 5.  Then, on March 19, 1948, at 10:00 am Colonial Heights became a city of the second class.  A municipality needs to have a population of at least 5,000 to become a second class city, and the official population of Colonial Heights was 5,819 when it became a city.  Colonial Heights was not truly independent yet, it was still considered a city within the jurisdiction of Chesterfield County.  The city was set to take over the collection of certain county taxes, but no changes in the organization of Colonial Heights’ government occurred. 

There were rumors of an ulterior motive for the town’s decision to become a city, and at the time The Richmond Times-Dispatched stated, “Although there was no indication of it in Judge Jefferson’s order, it is conceded that the reclassification of the community was designed primarily to avoid threats of annexation by the city of Petersburg.”[16]  The ulterior motive of keeping Colonial Heights from being annexed by Petersburg was also discussed in The Progress Index’s quote: “Change to a city gives the community much greater powers and obviates any possibility of annexation to Petersburg except by consolidation.”[17] Virginia law states that cities cannot annex any part or whole of another city unless a majority of the citizens of the city being “annexed” agrees to consolidation.  In the late 1930s through 1948, many residents of Colonial Heights began to fear that because of its growing population and great revenue achieved through traffic ticketing the city of Petersburg would attempt to annex the town into its city limits.  Unlike when the meetings for Colonial Heights to become a town started, there was no faction arguing to become a part of Petersburg when discussions to become a city commenced.  Colonial Heights further insured that it could not be annexed by Petersburg and became fully independent from Chesterfield on March 9, 1960 when its population became more than 10,000, enabling the city to gain first class status.

The city has continued to grow and expand up to today.  What started as a town with a population of about 1,100 and an area of one square mile has grown into a city of about eight square miles with a population of approximately 17,063[18].  The city’s revenue, while still aided by traffic tickets, now primarily comes from the taxation of Southpark Mall, which opened in March of 1989.  Southpark Mall was probably specifically designed to be the nail in the coffin of Petersburg’s Walnut Hill Mall, which closed in the early 90s due in part also to Petersburg’s higher business tax rates.  Eight of the top-ten largest employers in the city are located in or in the direct proximity of the mall. 

Brief Look at Colonial Heights Schools (most specifically secondary) And Brown V. Board of Education.

The first school in Colonial Heights was under the jurisdiction of Chesterfield County and built around 1890.  It was a single-room twelve feet by twelve feet building that provided elementary education.  Going back to just before Colonial Heights became a town, another of the citizens league’s big accomplishments was the granting of permission to build the Colonial Heights Elementary School, and “the ground-breaking ceremony…took place on May 17, 1921, and the school opened the following year.”[19]  In 1950, administration of the school was taken over by Miss Flora M. Hill.  Her incredible success with the school led to its name being changed to the Flora M. Hill School in 1954.  Colonial Heights Elementary School became the name of the new school built in 1954 in what would become the original location of Colonial Heights High School (1956-1964) and the present location of Colonial Heights Middle School (1964-present).  North Elementary School was built in 1959, and between the construction of North and Lakeview Elementary in 1969, the Flora M. Hill School closed down and was eventually demolished in 1995.  The third and final public elementary school erected in Colonial Heights was Tussing Elementary in 1975.[20]

Before the opening of Colonial Heights High School in 1956, secondary education students attended Petersburg public schools.  A momentous Supreme Court decision, Brown V. Board of Education, changed this situation.  The effects were not felt immediately due to the South’s policy of massive resistance to integration, but once desegregation was ordered, Colonial Heights decided it was time to create its own middle school (at the time junior high school) and high school.  Colonial Heights High School opened in 1956 offering only eighth grade, and expanded with each year following until it graduated its first class in 1961.  The citizens of Colonial Heights wanted to create legally segregated secondary schools for the city, because as stated in The Richmond Times-Dispatch, “At least one city will not be directly affected by the court’s decision, Colonial Heights.  No Negroes live in the city.”[21]  At the time of Brown V. Board, Colonial Heights had a population of 6,077, 0.2 percent of which were Black.  The city had a school enrollment of 745 students, zero percent of which were Black.  This is compared to Petersburg, with a population that was 42.2 percent Black, and a total school enrollment that was 44.6 percent black.[22]  Colonial Heights built its present high school in 1964 farther north at 3600 Conduit Road, and Colonial Heights Junior High (now Middle) School became the sole inhabitant of the location at 500 Conduit Road.

Facts and Observations of Life Today in Colonial Heights

The population for Colonial Heights based on the 2000 census was 16,897.  Of this number, 88.3 percent of the people were White; 6.3 percent were Black; 1.6 percent were Hispanic; and Korean, Asian Indian, two or more races, and other races made up a total of only 3.1 percent.[23]  It is quite easy to tell that the population of “Colonial Whites” is not very diverse.  City-data.com goes on to state that the “Black race population percentage is significantly below [the] state average,”[24] and says the same of the Hispanic race population percentage.  The city of Colonial Heights does not welcome minorities with open arms.

Not much has changed in Colonial Heights High School as well.  Data from the 2002-2003 school year shows that the school had an enrollment of 870 students.  87 percent of these students were White, and the state average was 66 percent.  Only eight percent of CHHS students were Black in this school year, which is slightly more than three times lower than the state average of 26 percent.[25]  CHHS had a Black teacher during the 2000-2001 school year.  He taught English, and had many of the “trouble students” in his classes, probably on purpose, but the students appreciated him, were motivated by him, and had fun with him (students would give him “high fives” in the hallway).  He did not return the following year because threatening letters were found under his car windshield wipers and his car was even keyed with a racial slur.  The saddest part of this story is that it was believed to be the work of fellow CHHS teachers, not students.  In the following school year, CHHS had what was probably its first interracial couple, a white male and a black female.  The white male was overheard stating, in all honesty and not in a joking manner, “I’m not racist. I’m dating a n****r.”  Colonial Heights High School, its students, and its teachers have yet to grow out of the stereotype of “Colonial Whites.”

Going back to the city’s heritage, the Civil War is a popular topic in Colonial Heights.  If an outsider was to overhear a discussion among Colonial Heights citizens about the war, the outsider would probably believe that every person in the city were historians.  Many residents are overly proud of the fact that Robert E. Lee made his headquarters at Violet Bank.  The fact that Colonial Heights is about 25 miles south of Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, and just north of Petersburg, where the incredible siege toward the end of the war took place, most likely plays a part in the “confederate pride” expressed by many citizens in the city.  Confederate flags fly at many houses in the city, and if a person has lived in Colonial Heights his/her whole life, the person would still be considered a Yankee if his/her family did not migrate to the South before the Civil War.

While no source directly states “Colonial Heights was founded by racist Whites attempting to flee encroachment by Blacks,” many of the facts and figures of the history of Colonial Heights imply it.  The area was first settled by farmers with large tracts of land.  Some of the earliest non-farming residents came to the area shortly before the Civil War.  They either lived in Victorian style homes or the mansions of Violet Bank, Oak Hill, Roslyn, or Ellerslie.[26]  All of the homes were on sizeable plots of land, which were later subdivided between 1900 and 1920.  Racial segregation was legal in Virginia, so it can easily be believed that these plots were only sold to other Whites.  When the issue came up of whether or not the community should become a town, a faction was formed that wanted to be annexed to Petersburg.  Segregation was still legal at that time, so even though Petersburg had a large Black population, residents in the Colonial Heights community would not have to live near them.  When Colonial Heights gained the opportunity to become a city in 1948, talks of ending segregation throughout the South were starting.  No faction for the annexation to Petersburg was formed this time, and many commentators of the time suspected Colonial Heights became a city for the sole purpose of ending the possibility of being annexed to Petersburg.  The Richmond Times-Dispatch stated this matter-of-factly in the already utilized quote, “Although there was no indication of it in Judge Jefferson’s order, it is conceded that the reclassification of the community was designed primarily to avoid threats of annexation by the city of Petersburg.”[27] 


[1] Dan Drummond, “Happy 50th: Colonial Heights begins a month-long celebration,” The Progress Index, March 20, 1998, 1.

[2] Accounts paraphrased from Charles Runnells, “Something to Celebrate: Colonial Heights Plans for its 50th,” The Progress Index, March 2, 1997, sec. A, p. 1.

[3] Information about Algonquin Indians and quote from “Colonial Heights,” The Progress Index, May 24, 1970, 6.

[4] Information about the grist mill and quote from ibid.

[5] “Colonial Heights, 1783-1910,” The Progress Index, May 24, 1970, 4.

[6] Richard L. Jones, “Colonial Heights - - 1919 To 1926 A Town Is Founded,” The Progress Index, July 19, 1970, 4.

[7] Information from Richard L. Jones, “Colonial Heights, 1926-1964: The Sheppard Era,” The Progress Index, date unknown (presumably in 1973 because of a quote in the text), page unknown.  Several of the articles from The Progress Index were found in photocopy form in a binder in the Colonial Heights Public Library, and full attention was not paid to cataloging dates and page numbers.

[8] Richard L. Jones, “Colonial Heights - - 1919 To 1926 A Town Is Founded,” The Progress Index, July 19, 1970, 4.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Colonial Heights to be Incorporated: Territory Cut in Half by Judge Cox,” The Progress Index, July 24, 1926, 1.

[13] “To Discuss Land Values,” The Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 28, 1926

[14] Richard L. Jones, “Colonial Heights - - 1919 To 1926 A Town Is Founded,” The Progress Index, July 19, 1970, 4.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Information following footnote 15 in the text and quote for this reference are from “Colonial Heights Becomes Chesterfield’s Only City,” The Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 20, 1948, 2.

[17] “Colonial Heights Changed to City,” The Progress Index, evening edition, March 19, 1948, 7. 

[18] Information from Charles Runnells, “Something to Celebrate: Colonial Heights Plans for its 50th,” The Progress Index, March 2, 1997, sec. A, p. 1;  “Facts and Figures,” http://www.colonial-heights.com/FactsFigures.htm (13 November 2004);  and “Colonial Heights, Virginia,” http://www.city-data.com/city/Colonial-Heights-Virginia.html (13 November 2004).

[19] Richard L. Jones, “Colonial Heights - - 1919 To 1926 A Town Is Founded,” The Progress Index, July 19, 1970, 4.

[20] Charles Runnells, “Something to Celebrate: Colonial Heights Plans for its 50th,” The Progress Index, March 2, 1997, sec. A, p. 1.

[21] Tom Davis, “Chesterfield Officials Await Pattern of Statewide Policy,” The Richmond Times-Dispatch, May 18, 1954, 7.

[22] “Some Statistics on White and Negro Schools,” The Richmond Times-Dispatch, May 18, 1954, 6.

[23] “Colonial Heights, Virginia,” http://www.city-data.com/city/Colonial-Heights-Virginia.html (13 November 2004).

[24] Ibid.

[25] “Colonial Heights High School,” http://greatschools.net/modperl/browse_school/va/391/ (13 November 2004).

[26] “Colonial Heights, 1783-1910,” The Progress Index, May 24, 1970, 4.

[27] “Colonial Heights Becomes Chesterfield’s Only City,” The Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 20, 1948, 2.


Last modified: 01/21/06