POWHATAN COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — Tucked away 40 miles west of downtown Richmond sits a former plantation called “Belmead.” The plantation became a site for two Black Catholic boarding schools — both of which have been closed for more than 50 years now.
“You could see our campus if you were coming on a boat up and down the James River. You could look up and see on the top of that hill, there is a castle, and that was St. Emma,” said alumnus Robert Walker, Jr.
The History of Belmead
Millionaire heiress Katharine Drexel, who was later named a Saint by the Catholic Church, founded St. Emma Agricultural and Industrial Institute, which was later named St. Emma Military Academy for Boys in 1895.
On the same land, Katharine’s sister Louise Bouvier Drexel Morrell and her Congressman husband Edward Morrell, founded the St. Francis de Sales School for girls. The Drexels were older cousins of Jackie Kennedy Onassis.
St. Francis was named after the sister’s father Francis Drexel, and St. Emma was named after their father’s second wife Emma Mary Bouvier.
It was a dream of Richmond native Peggy Granderson Thurston to attend St. Francis.
“The camaraderie that was developed at St. Francis de Sales is like none other,” said Thurston, who graduated from St. Francis in 1964.
Nashville native Robert Walker Jr. transferred to St. Emma’s after attending Maggie Walker High School for one year and would later graduate in 1965.
“Not too many people have that privilege, so I am part of a very unique brotherhood,” said Walker, whose father was a chemistry professor at Virginia Union University.
The campuses for St. Emma’s and St. Francis sat on 2,000 acres of what used to be a Confederate General’s slave plantation that was designed decades prior in 1845. Katharine Drexel later bought the land for the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and transformed it into two private boarding schools exclusively for Black and Native American students.
“When we talk about the whole State of Virginia, we couldn’t do this without mentioning this boarding school, this wonderful place that a lot of folks don’t know about, that was in Powhatan,” said Mary Lauderdale, the Director of collections at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia.
Lauderdale added an education exhibit featuring St. Emma’s and St. Francis. It takes visitors back in time to when students used to take a wooden ferry on the James River to get to class.
“My understanding is that the only thing they really had to import was sugar and salt, but everything else pretty much, they could make there. The girls sewed the uniforms, the men built the buildings,” said Lauderdale, whose been with the museum for over two decades.
St. Francis is a big part of Lauderdale’s family history. Both her grandmother and aunt are graduates.
“I found the ledger from when she arrived, and that was June 30, 1919, and the next day, an aunt of mine from my father’s side of the family arrived,” Lauderdale said.
For Thurston, she loved the rural, isolated setting at St. Francis that reminded her of her mother’s hometown in Louisa County. The school taught her all about discipline and responsibility.
“You had to be responsible for everything that belonged to you, and if you left something laying around, which I found out in my freshman year, you forfeited the opportunity to go to the social with the cadets from St. Emma,” Thurston said.
Thurston says not only were the nuns strict, but they were key in pushing for equal rights in central Virginia. She says her school’s Mother Superior would remove the segregated “Whites Only” signs from drinking fountains and park benches and put her own safety in jeopardy, which also made their school a target for the KKK.
“There was a period of time when the riders came on campus, but the nuns stood their ground and then, the cadets from St. Emma, they called over and came over with their rifles, and they protected us and set up a barricade,” Thurston said.
St. Emma’s remains the nation’s only Black military academy. Robert Walker says it prepared him for the Marine Corps.
“When I was in Boot Camp at Paris Island, I got promoted, and I was one of the very few recruits that actually marched the platoon around, all because of my experience at St. Emma,” said Walker, who fought in the Vietnam War.
Walker chronicled that experience in his book “The Black Military Academy on the James River,” which was published in 2006.
With desegregation and loss in funding, St. Francis closed in 1970, and St. Emma shut down two years later. Both schools together educated nearly 15,000 students. Only a few large structures remain, but many have fallen into disrepair. The land is now the property of the Belmead Equestrian Club, which has conducted tours of the remaining chapel buildings.
Alumni still meet up annually for reunions typically in Myrtle Beach, but this summer, the group plans to gather in New Orleans.
The exhibit for St. Emma’s and St. Francis will be on display at the Black History Museum until April 29.
Alumni will give a special talk titled “From enslavement to empowerment” at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture on February 18th at 12 p.m.