Former cadets push to save old African-American military academy

Posted at 11:17 AM, Jun 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-19 23:38:29-04

POWHATAN COUNTY, Va. -- Some recollections never fade. Belmead on the James left a lasting impression on D.A. Harris.

“It was a majestic place. It was a proud place. It was a self-sufficient place," Harris said. “I’m here for the place, the land, and the memories.”

It's paradise found for this Powhatan native. Solitude draws this neighbor back again and again.

"Because it’s part of my childhood that is still left. I love it. I love the place. I just come over here to sit for hours," Harris said.

But Harris is not alone in reconnecting with his roots here. Fifty years ago, Belmead was a beehive of activity. From 1895 to 1972 St. Emma's called this place home. A school unlike any other in America.

“When I came back a few weeks ago, and I came back up the hill, everything just came back to me. I could feel it in my gut. I said, ‘I’m back,'" former cadet Eugene Butler said.

Butler and Robert Walker are former cadets at the nation's only military academy for African-American males.

“I love this place and you get a certain feeling as soon as you come on this property you know," former cadet Walker said.

The two men share a friendship that was lockstep, quite literally.

“I saw them in uniforms. I saw them marching with precision and I said, ‘My goodness. That is for me,'" Butler said.

St. Emma's industrial and agricultural school shaped young men with more than just practical skills.

“I needed the discipline and the structured lifestyle they provided here," Walker said.

“Learning about fellowship. Learning about courtesy. Learning about strength. Learning about discipline. This is what this place taught me," Butler said.

The 2,000-acre property on the James River was completely foreign to Butler, a New York City native.

“That was something to behold. Because I didn’t think anything like this existed," he said.

For Walker, a Richmonder, attending St. Emma's was a privilege.

“You would leave here with a military diploma. A trade diploma and an academic diploma," he said.

Ten thousand young men graduated in nearly 80 years. A stark contrast to the dark beginnings of Belmead.

In 1845, Confederate Officer Phillip Cocke's enslaved people built the mansion and worked his plantation. Years after Cocke's death, a wealthy philanthropist purchased the property and opened St. Emma's. A saving grace in the segregated school system.

But dwindling enrollment forced the St. Emma's to close 48 years ago.

Returning cadets like Walker and Butler find a nearly empty campus. The buildings bulldozed. All that remains are the big house and memories. Plenty of memories. Surviving cadets are shouldering a new responsibility.

“The last class that graduated from this school was 1972. So there will be no more graduates. No one else to tell the story," Walker said. “So we have to be the ones to tell the story.”

A renewed effort to save the legacy of their beloved school was born this Spring.

Historian John Plashal said it is time Virginians learn about St. Emmas.

“It is absolutely hallowed ground and what makes this place unique is that it's relatively unknown to the public," Plashal said. “This is something that needs to transcend generations and the only way they’ll do that is to bring them here to hear those stories.”

He is leading guided tours of historic Belmead and the cemetery where more than 130 of the plantation's enslaved people are buried.

“You have to remember that a lot of what happened here was rooted in slavery," Plashal said.

Money raised through tours will build a historic marker and perhaps a museum.

Belmead's new owner Jeff Oakley rolls out the welcome mat for the cadets who once called this place home.

“There is just no recognition for what went on here," Oakley said. “We’re committed to making this something that everyone who was a part of this past history can be proud of what we’re doing in the future.”

Eugene Butler and Robert Walker graduated more than half-century ago.

“This place should never have been forgotten," Bulter said.

The graduates may have left St. Emma's, but their alma mater never left them.

“I was made into a man here. I came here as a boy and I left here as a man," Walker said. “I can’t say and put into words how much I love this place."

As members of a dwindling fraternity, these aging cadets are determined to save their school's legacy before time marches on.

Former Cadet Robert Walker wrote about book about the history of St. Emma's called, "The Black Military Academy on the James River."

John Plashal leads regular tours of Belmead on the James.

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