Now abandoned St Emma's was a military high school for African Americans in Powhatan County, VA, graduating more than 10,000 students. Built around the mansion of a former Confederate general, the school opened in 1895 and closed in the early 1970s. The institution is mostly demolished except for the original general's mansion that remains standing but is slowly deteriorating. Yesterday I was on a history tour of the grounds led by John Plashal and Fred Schneider. The grounds, all 2300 acres, were awesome and the buildings, especially the mansion, were outstanding. But the best part of the day was listening to three St Emma's graduates talking about student life at St Emmas and their lives after graduating.
The African American students and teachers of St Emma built the agricultural and industrial infrastructure of the school enabling self sufficiency and becoming the largest economic force of the county. Ironically, the mansion, called the Big House by the students, was originally built by enslaved people of materials taken from the plantation's own natural resources. This transition of the mansion and its environs from a place of enslaved people to one of empowered people wasn't a single "event" but rather the dedicated effort of many people over many years, especially the students. The school closed as legal segregation ended but the school's legacy lives on through the accomplishments of its talented and successful alumni. What's puzzling, but perhaps not surprising, is that no detailed history of St Emma exists in US historic records, for instance, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture has collected no information on the school. Nor has Virginia, nor has Powhatan County. As the buildings crumble and the graduates pass on, memories will eventually fade and only the Ghosts of St Emma will remain.
St Emma MansionView from lounge to dining room Tree Lined DriveThe students of St Emma referred to leaving the grounds as "going down the hill" The Big House at St Emma'sLong abandoned mansion basement now a shelter for ferns