By William “Duke” Smither
Growing up in Kentucky, on the cusp of legalized segregation and school desegregation, I became familiar with all kinds of gemstones one could find along the creeks and riverbanks, especially the sand bars, shallow river bends, and water channels which swished and swirled, like speckled water-serpents, and striped ribbon-snakes.
Not diamonds and pearls per se, but mostly plain ole colorized rocks, like limestone, shale, or quartz and such, simply raw stones, and stuff from the earth. Yet, chock-full of old fashion meanings and symbolism just the same. Sort of like what older folk used to say about Black schools and Black teachers: They were gems, too. More like black pearls in the rough, on the trodden paths of the unique story of Black education in America. Perhaps, akin to Virginia’s St. Emma Military Academy, along the banks of the James River, about 35 miles west of Richmond.
Known for its cannery, farming, equipment repair, engineering, and accounting trades, it too was a gem. It was not just another elite, Black boarding school; it was the only African-American military high school in America, in the post-Civil War and Reconstruction years… from 1895 to 1972, it was “a school unlike any other in America,” according to a news interview with alumni members in 2020 by Richmond’s WTVR (CBS) journalist and reporter, Greg McQuade.
However, it was only after my moving to the so-called former capital of the Confederate States that I learned of the more intricate details about the school from a bevy of local friends.
One, Mr. Robert A. Walker Jr., a former cadet at St. Emma, had written an inspiring and meticulously researched book about the school, “The Black Military Academy On the James River: A Memoir of a True Story From 1895-2005” ISBN: 0-9767216-4-3), 308 pages; 2006.
Around June 2020, Walker and fellow former cadet Eugene Butler shared their story about St. Emma with Greg McQuade, a journalist and reporter at WTVR (CBS 6) in Richmond:
Also, during Black History Month 2023, Walker, Ms. Peggy Granderson Thurston, a graduate of Belmead’s St. Francis de Sales School for girls, and Ms. Mary Lauderdale, Director at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, provided additional perspectives of life at St. Emma’s and St. Francis, the former 2,000+ acre slave plantation, before and after its purchase and transformation into two private boarding schools for Black and Native American students. Their views were shared with Ms. Heather Hope of WRIC (ABC 8) News, in Richmond. Their impressions are available within the video-tape link below:
To be sure, a different version of private, or public, schools in America does exist within annals of the American South, stretching back to colonial times. But that tradition came to a screeching halt, well… almost, when the U.S. Supreme Court rulings [Brown v. Board of Education… (1954), coupled with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Elementary and Secondary School Act of 1965], abolished the legalized separation of Black and White students. Still today, public and private schools remain segregated along racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines.
Eventually, school desegregation, and loss in funding, shut down St. Francis in 1970; St. Emma’s Military Academy closed in 1972.
An exhibit for St. Emma’s and St. Francis was scheduled to be on display at the Black History Museum until April 29.
During Black History Month 2023, members of the Alumni gave a ‘special talk’ titled “From enslavement to empowerment” at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. In the photo below, a few of the participants included [L-R], Ed Davis (Digital Art Illustrator), Rober Walker and Eugene Butler (St. Emma Alumni), Peggy Thurston (St. Francis Alumnus), John Plaschal and Fred Scheider (Moderator/ Historians). Also, a special performance by the award-winning actor– and St. Emma Alumnus— Lou Beatty Jr. (in above photo) performed excerpts from his engaging, awareness-raising play, “The Reason for Juneteenth.”
In the week following the Museum Event, special award ceremonies were held at the Sam Miller’s Restaurant, in Richmond. Additional photos from the Museum Event and Restaurant are shown below:
Over the years, annual enrollments at both campus schools have been estimated at about 150 young ladies attending St. Frances de Sales, and 300 young men attending St. Emma, collectively approaching 40,000 students, or more.
With high academic standards for the students, stressing ‘self-discipline and the importance of community’, the St. Emma Military Academy’s demographics included students ‘from all parts of the United States, the Caribbean and Africa’. The school was heralded for turning ‘misdirected and confused’ youth around, as well as ‘enhancing the talents of gifted students’.
In 2016, after both schools had closed and the school grounds laid dormant, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament placed the entire 2,265 acre-property on the market; built around 1845, it was finally sold on June 12, 2019. According to Powhatan County records, the sale price was at $6 million, with an assessed value of $7.1 million.
The new owner, Jeff Oakley of Prince George County (VA), later allowed the alumni to begin hosting tours, further extolling the history of the property, located northwest of the junction of Routes 663 and 600, near Powhatan, Virginia.
Historian John Plashal, who also leads the guided tours of the historic site, including the cemetery where more than 130 of the plantation’s enslaved people are buried, said in the 2020 interview with McQuade that Virginians should know about St. Emma: “It is absolutely hallowed ground and what makes this place unique is that it’s relatively unknown to the public… something that needs to transcend generations and the only way they’ll do that is to bring them here to hear those stories.”
As former cadet Robert Walker observed, “…there will be no more graduates. No one else to tell the story… so we have to be the ones to tell the story.”
Once lauded as “a saving grace” during the years of segregation, I truly believe that the St. Emma Military Academy was more like the other “gemstones” I used to find along the creeks and riverbanks in Kentucky.
Indisputably, in my opinion, it was “…a school unlike any other in America,” as well.