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How Petersburg influenced Martin Luther King Jr.

PETERSBURG, Va. -- A home on Harrison Street in Petersburg's Polar Lawn Historic District was a well-known safe haven for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he traveled to Central Virginia. But it was not just a place to stay that drew the reverend to Petersburg at least a half-dozen times in a ten-year period.

In fact, the city and some of the people who lived there played an important role in his movement.

The white clapboard house in the 500 block of Harrison Street, which has been empty for years, offered Dr. King a safe place to eat and sleep when he traveled to the area between the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stayed in this now derelict Petersburg home.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stayed in this now derelict Petersburg home.

"Accommodations were not available, hotels, there weren't any motels at the time, but hotels were not available readily for blacks, so we had to stay at homes," Rev. Andrew White, who severed as pastor of Zion Baptist Church from 1963 to 2010, explained.

White first met Dr. King while he was a student at Virginia Union University and when he drove him to Byrd Airport to catch a plane.

He would continue to see Dr. King when he came to Virginia and to Petersburg where he often spoke at churches.

"I know of his coming to Gillfield, we call it Harrison Street or First Baptist on Harrison Street and Zion," White said.

Rev. Andrew White

Rev. Andrew White

Rev. White said Dr. King's connection to  Petersburg was mutually beneficial.

"When he came here he found people already ready to listen [to] what he had to say, so they embraced him and he embraced them," White said.

And Petersburg also offered Dr. King the help he needed.

"Petersburg was on the map because Petersburg had some excellent lay and clergy leadership and Petersburg was ripe for the formation of the kind of structure and organization that he needed," White said.

Dr. King made his first official to Petersburg in 1956 and his last visit would happened in June of 1967.

During his visits he recruited three people to become part of his administrative staff, including Rev. Wyatt T. Walker and Herbert Colton.

Petersburg became the first city in the nation to issue a proclamation making Dr. King’s birthday an official holiday in 1973.