By David Bearinger
They say a ghost inhabits the old Belmead Mansion in Powhatan County, but Sister Maureen Carroll—who has seen it—says the ghost is sweet-natured and not to worry.
Belmead is an architectural jewel, a former plantation house designed in the Gothic Revival style and built by Philip St. George Cocke during the 1840s. Mystery permeates the mansion and the land surrounding it—more than 2,000 acres along the south bank of the James River, thirty miles west of Richmond.
Maybe that’s because the place has a story to tell, one far deeper and richer than most casual visitors would ever imagine. Ghost or no ghost, there’s no denying that Belmead holds more than its share of mystery and surprises, along with healthy shots of irony, hope and renewal.
A grant from VFH has helped to tell that story.
By all accounts, St. George Cocke was a forward-thinking and progressive agriculturist. More than a century before such ideas became commonplace, he was writing about the importance of relationship between buildings and the surrounding landscape.
He developed a five-year crop rotation system for Belmead, and, from 1853 to 1856, he served as president of the Virginia State Agricultural Society. He was also farming some of the best soil in Virginia, and the land yielded generously under his hand.
In 1859 alone, Belmead produced 75,000 pounds of tobacco, 50,000 bushels of corn, 15,000 bushels of oats, and 8,000 bushels of wheat.
On the eve of the Civil War, Cocke was one of the largest slaveholders in the South. And the truth is, his successful agricultural operations and that graceful mansion overlooking two miles of prime riverfront were really built by the people he enslaved.
Which is where the irony of Belmead’s story begins.
Cocke was a graduate of West Point, a colonel in the Confederate army who fought at First Manassas. Coming home from that engagement, exhausted and depressed, he celebrated Christmas at Belmead with his family, and then on December 26, 1861, committed suicide with his own pistol.
His sons continued to farm Belmead into the 1880s, but in 1892 they sold the estate to two Catholic sisters from Philadelphia, Katharine (later Saint Katharine) Drexel and Louise Drexel Morrell. A year earlier, Katharine had founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, a religious order whose purpose was to minister to the educational, social, and spiritual needs of American Indians and African Americans.
The Sisters moved quickly to establish two schools on the Belmead property: St. Emma Industrial and Agricultural College for boys (1895) and St. Francis de Sales School for girls (1899).
Vibrant campuses sprang up on the former plantation, including at one point nearly 100 separate buildings, and during the next seventy years, more than 15,000 African Americans from Virginia and throughout the country graduated from the two schools. This was years, even decades before most communities in Virginia were providing high school education for black children.
Both schools closed early in the 1970s, and most of the buildings were demolished in 1974. Only Belmead Mansion, the main St. Francis building, the granary, and a few other structures were left standing. A magnificent and largely unknown piece of Virginia’s history was in danger of being lost.
Which is where the stories of hope and renewal begin.
In 2006 the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament placed more than 1,000 of Belmead’s nearly 2,300 acres under conservation easement. A separate nonprofit organization, FrancisEmma, Inc., was formed. The site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and a long-range plan was set in place to make Belmead a center for environmental education and sustainable (Green) technology.
Sister Maureen, who also has a degree in philanthropy, describes Belmead’s ongoing story in terms of three eras: of enslavement, empowerment, and environment. The long-term vision for this former plantation and once-thriving campus now includes generating solar power on-site and selling the energy to support environmental education, community history, and stewardship.
At the heart of this vision for the future is a commitment to telling the stories of Belmead’s past, especially the stories of St. Francis and St. Emma, with a focus on the local community. Many of Powhatan County’s current residents are either descended from the men and women enslaved at Belmead or they have personal or family ties to the schools.
VFH grant funds, awarded to FrancesEmma, Inc., in 2011, supported oral history interviews with former teachers, alumni, and local residents. It was an important step in a longer-term documentary effort.
Today at Belmead, native hardwood forests are being restored, stewardship of the land and its history is a defining commitment, and the hilltop where the old mansion rests teems with birdlife.
As for the ghost, it seems at peace, perhaps comforted to know that Belmead’s past is at the heart of a thriving present—and of the work to come.
All photos courtesy of FrancisEmma, Inc.
- Visit Belmead Mansion
- Belmead – African American Historic Sites Database, VA
- Philip St. George Cocke – Encyclopedia Virginia