Wharf Hill

Historical Significance

The town of Smithfield, first colonized in 1634, is located on the Pagan River near Jamestown. Known to the Nottoway people as "Warascoyack" or Warrosquoyacke", meaning "point of land", the area was renamed "Isle of Wight County" in 1637.

The industrial growth of Smithfield began along the river before the Revolutionary War, with the curing and shipping of hams and the manufacturing and warehousing of peanuts, cotton, lumber, and other businesses. Smithfield became widely known as the ham and peanut capital of the world, and the Wharf Hill commercial district thrived through the early twentieth century.

In 1921, the "Great Fire" ravaged Commerce Street in Wharf Hill, burning out nearly all of the businesses along the Pagan River. The growth of Wharf Hill as a center of African American commerce began when these companies abandoned the area, selling out cheaply to black buyers and eventually becoming an area where blacks could come together to socialize and conduct business at the many service-oriented enterprises along the commercial strip.

Wharf Hill included such businesses as barbershops, funeral homes, restaurants, cleaners, and shoe repair shops, as well as theaters and social clubs. The IBPOE -- Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World -- Smithfield Elks Lodge #65, was an important African American civic organization located on the strip. The building was constructed in 1905 to house a farm equipment business, later becoming a meeting site for an English fraternal organization, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. Acquired by the Smithfield Elks Lodge soon after the 1921 fire, the building became the center of black commerce during the years of segregation and Jim Crow, serving (among other functions) to secure loans for black entrepreneurs from wealthy white businessmen.

After integration, Wharf Hill commerce declined rapidly, and today only one business, a dry cleaner, operates on the strip. The Elks Lodge building, a post-Victorian two-story brick structure, was purchased from the Lodge by a private buyer in 2011 and is being renovated for use as a commercial rental space and banquet hall. 

Physical Description

Wharf Hill today consists of a strip of dilapidated buildings on the east side of Main Street, starting at the top of the hill at North Church Street and continuing down to the Pagan River waterfront. Each store has its own particular history relating to the struggle of black business ownership and the marginal resources available to blacks during segregation. Evidence of these businesses, such as old formaldehyde bottles, shoe repair equipment and abandoned shoes, coins, and store signs continue to be found. 

Restoration of the 1905 Elks Lodge has uncovered IBPOE charters, documents, photos, and even several ceremonial swords.

Geographical and Contact Information

205 Clay Street
Smithfield, Virginia
23430
Phone: 757-371-3788

Cite this Page:

Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, “Wharf Hill ,” African American Historic Sites Database, accessed August 21, 2017, http://aahistoricsitesva.org/items/show/481.

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