Monday, April 8, 2013

What is Happening with Belmead on the James?

Powhatan County may seem out of the way, but it won’t for long once you visit Belmead on the James.  Almost two centuries of history unfolds at Belmead and mirrors the struggles and triumphs of African Americans in Virginia.  Designed by Alexander Jackson Davis and built by the plantation’s enslaved workers, Belmead might have been counted as simply another plantation-- a page in the history books.  Instead in 1893 the property was purchased by Colonel and Mrs. Edward de Vaux Morrell of Philadelphia and donated to Katharine Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.  For her work here and nationwide, Katherine Drexel was canonized as saint in 2000.  In her life, she provided a vision to educate Native American and African American students in schools across the country.  At Belmead, St. Francis and St. Emma were built and for seven decades tens of thousands of young African American boarding students studied academic lessons, learned skills, and lived a sustainable existence.  Accredited by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1925, the school anchored the activities that made this property perk until its closing in the 1970s.  More than simply existing, Belmead instilled in its students and teachers a belief in the possibilities of confronting social injustice and providing a future for its African American students through education and training.

Time moved on.  Integration of local schools allowed children to live in their local communities rather than board at Belmead.  The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament searched for ways to maintain their ministry while honoring their dedication to this land.  Preservation Virginia named the Granary at Belmead to Virginia Most Endangered Historic Sites in 2006.  With that recognition, Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament were able to find support to stabilize the structure.  In 2007 and again in May 2010, the entire campus of St. Francis De Sales School was named to the List after a major portion of the four story bell tower collapsed the previous March.  In 2011, with the support of alumni, friends and Preservation Virginia, Belmead was listed on National Trust’s Most Endangered Historic Places to raise awareness and to promote solutions related to the preservation of this significant property.
Belmead survived in part because of its nimbleness and its ability to plug into the economic and cultural needs of the times.  Once again reinvention is a foot at Belmead-on the-James.  

Taking what others would see as major setbacks, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacraments are staging a comeback for Belmead and the associated buildings.  The Granary has been stabilized.  Damage to Belmead itself sustained in the earthquake in 2011 has been repaired stopping leaks that plagued the manor house and kept uses rare. 

What is emerging is a coordinated and organized effort to build a program at Belmead that will invite people in, build resources and have defined uses for the future of this amazing site. Want to learn more—read Bill Lohmann’s article in the Richmond times Dispatch (this article inspired our revisits to Endangered Site listings) .

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