Bel Mead the unique 2,200 plus acre former plantation on the James River in Powhatan, site of schools that educated African America children from 1890 to the 1970’s, could use a generous donation too. However, since the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament (SBS) decided in late April to sell the place and dissolve Francis Emma, Inc, the non-profit entity that pursued grants and other funds, there is no formal entity to receive contributions.
The intrepid group of SBS nuns who came to the Powhatan property about a decade ago and engaged with many group in the local community to revitalize BelMead, were blindsided and heartbroken by the announcement. Leaders of the SBS congregation are believed to have retained the firm of Plante Moran REIA to dispose of both its mother house in Pennsylvania and Bel Mead before the public announcement.
On Saturday, May 14, a press conference was held on the lawn behind the gracious Bel Mead antebellum mansion as the intrepid nuns, who have worked tirelessly to repurpose the property for a 21st century mission, circled their wagons. Hundreds of Bel Mead supporters, young and old, black and white, many on horseback, turned out to show their support.
Speakers were long on emotion--it's impossible to not love the place--but short on facts. The immediate goal is to get at least 2,500 signatures on a petition asking the SBS leadership for more time to craft a plan to save Bel Mead from either development or sale to an owner who would make it a private enclave.
Speculation was rife. Some supporters believed Bel Mead would be snatched up by a developer and subdivided. Given its remote location and a generous supply of more accessible large new homes languishing on the market, that seems unlikely. According to Powhatan County land records,the assessed valuation is around $4 million. It would seem reasonable that SBS would expect to realize more than that at sale. That's before any improvements a buyer might want to make.
Bel Mead is indeed a magical place. Though not in Goochland, it lies on the low side of the James River in full view of homes on the north shore. It is also remote. The lane that leads from the main road,itself narrow and winding, to the mansion and stables, travels alongside a bold creek and through thick woods and wetlands before opening into meadow. Before you reach the mansion and stables, you pass a slave cemetery where only anonymous white crosses mark the graves of the slaves that built Bel Mead and worked the land.
Powhatan Supervisor Carson Tucker, whose district includes BelMead, said it was no mistake he was dressed in black. He characterized Bel Mead as a capsule of agriculture in American history on the shore of the James River. From the Monacan Indians through days of plantation and slavery to the redemption represented by the St. Francis de Sales School for girls and St. Emma military academy funded by St.Katherine Drexel, to it current environmental initiatives, BelMead is sacred ground.
The president of the equestrian group said that "the land itself breathes, and has a pulse. You can almost hear the people from the past speaking."
Alumna Donna McLain said that her fellow graduates are testament to the rich legacy of the site. "It looks different, but it's still here," she said of the place that prepared more than 15,000 black students to take their place in the world.
Twenty years ago, one speaker said, the state was looking for land to use as a state park on the James River, Bel Mead was the top target. The SBS leadership refused, contending that that it still had a mission there.
Yet,in the past 10 years, new life has been breathed into Bel Mead. A stable leases facilities on the property. About 1,000 acres have been put into a historical easement. Sustainable agricultural practices are used to raise crops on the land. A museum interprets the cultural history. Spiritual and environmental missions enrich those who visit.
Although a workable, sustainable plan was in place to raise funds, secure grants, meeting interim goals, SBS leaders seem to have washed their hands of Bel Mead. Indeed, the terse wording of the announcement that Bel Mead will be sold indicates little interest in the work done there or its potential.
In a perfect world, a philanthropist with deep pockets might buy Bel Mead and work with the many groups that love the place to continue and expand its current purposes. But wishing doesn't make it so. However, input from many people might gain some time for Bel Mead.
Visit francisemma.org for more information about Bel Meade and for a link to the petition.
Bel Mead supporters, some on horseback, listen to pleas to save it from sale.