Belmead is an historic plantation located near Powhatan, Virginia. The plantation’s main residence, a two-story Gothic revival style structure, was built about 1845 and designed by the architect Alexander Jackson Davis. In 1860, 124 enslaved people toiled on the plantation and over 130 were buried on the plantation between 1835 and 1865.
After the Civil War the plantation was deserted and in 1895 was purchased by Katherine Drexel, the heiress to a fortune made by her father, Francis Drexel, in the banking industry. In 1891 Katherine had taken vows as a nun and later founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament order. Katherine became the first canonized saint of the Catholic Church born in the United States. The order she established had a specific purpose: to work with Native American and Black populations.
The new owners of Belmead established the St. Frances de Sales School dedicated to the education of Black and Native American girls. A residential campus was soon populated by students who were held to high standard academic and vocational education standards. Between its establishment in 1896 and its closure in 1970, over 5,000 young women were educated at St. Frances de Sales.
In 1899 a second school was established on the grounds, the St. Emma Military Academy. This was a high school military academy exclusively for Black male students who lived on the school grounds. As enrollment in the school grew many new buildings were built by students in the vocational training programs at the school. Like St Frances de Sales, St. Emma had high academic and rigorous physical fitness standards for the students. The school became known for turning misdirected and confused young teens around and enhancing the talents of gifted students. The young men wore military uniforms, were assigned to marching battalions, and followed strict military regimentation. Students reported that upon graduation cadets had earned a valued diploma as well as pride and self-confidence. They learned self-discipline and the importance of community. During the years of its existence, 1899-1972, St. Emma Military Academy graduated over 10,000 young black men. Students came from all parts of the United States, the Caribbean and Africa to attend the academy.
Enrollment in the schools varied over the years, but it is estimated about 150 girls attended St. Frances de Sales and 300 young men attended St. Emma annually. Although both schools were on the same piece of property there was very little interaction between the sexes.
By 1972 both schools had closed due to declining enrollment and financial problems. The school grounds then laid dormant for 50 years after all the buildings except for Belmead House (affectionately known as “The Rock” by students).
In 2016, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament put the 2,265 acres on the market. In June 2019 the property was sold. The new owner, Jeff Oakley, has allowed the non-profit alumni association, Belmead on the James, to host tours of the Gothic mansion and remaining school building.
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“St. Bootstraps,” https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1994/01/09/st-bootstraps/6c3fc1f1-6780-47b1-b972-cd653eca9797/; “St Frances de Sales Historic Tour,” https://www.johnplashalphoto.com/2019-events/2020/7/25/st-francis-de-sales-historical-tour; “The Drone Footage Of This Abandoned School In Virginia Will Drop Your Jaw,” https://www.onlyinyourstate.com/virginia/st-francis-de-sales-school-abandoned-va/.