Belmead on the James

Belmead on the James

Designed in 1845 by renowned American architect Alexander Jackson Davis, this Gothic Revival manor house is an architectural masterpiece and the heart of a 2,000-acre rural landscape.

Built by enslaved people for plantation owners, Belmead-on-the-James took on new life when purchased in the 1890s by Katharine Drexel and her sister, who hailed from one of America’s wealthiest families. Katharine would later become one of only two American-born saints in the Roman Catholic Church.

Once a place of enslavement, Belmead became a self-sufficient center for the education of young African American and Native American students when the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, established by Katharine Drexel, transformed the former plantation into two private schools.

The boys’ school, St. Emma Agricultural and Industrial Institute, was headquartered in the former mansion, while an 1895 Gothic-towered building became the home of St. Francis de Sales High School for girls.

Over the course of seven decades, Belmead-on-the-James has touched many thousands of lives, including 15,000 of America’s most disenfranchised students.

Both schools have produced an impressive list of distinguished alumni whose ranks include members of the elite Tuskegee Airmen and Civil Rights leaders.

After financial setbacks, the schools were shut down in the 1970s. Most of the school buildings were demolished shortly thereafter, and the few historic structures that remain standing today are underutilized and deteriorating. Belmead-on-the-James was included on the Trust's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list for 2011.

In June 2019, Jeff Oakley of Prince George County acquired this 2,265-acre property for $6 million. Negotiations took awhile as both sides were working to put together a deal that worked for everyone, he said.

One condition of the sale was an agreement to preserve the cemeteries located on the property. Oakley likes the idea of putting in a skeet course, which was allowed, but a firing range was not.

There is also a restriction on opening a casino on the property for 25 years, he said. AJ Holdings is listed as the buyer. It showed the sale price at $6 million, but the assessed value was $7.1 million.

It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969.

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