menu search

The Drone Footage Of This Abandoned School In Virginia Will Drop Your Jaw

Powhatan County sits in the Central Piedmont region of Virginia, bordered by the James River to the north and the Appomattox River to the south. Named after Chief Powhatan, the famous Algonquian chief who ruled this region when European settlers first landed at Jamestown in 1607, the area was primarily inhabited by the Monacan Indian tribe. Many consider this land to be sacred, but some for reasons you might not expect.

In 1899, a school named St. Francis de Sales was opened in Powhatan County along the banks of the James River. This school was unlike any that the nation, and certainly the south, had ever seen. Founded by a Catholic nun from Pennsylvania, the school was the first of its kind – a prestigious high school intended exclusively for African American girls. The school remained open for 70 years, offering education and hope to thousands of young girls.

Sadly, once St. Francis closed in 1970, it was left empty. After more than 40 years of abandonment and neglect, all that remains of the 50 buildings that once comprised the campus is a single building. The following video, captured by Jonathan Luckett, shows breathtaking drone footage of what is left of the once proud school.

St. Francis de Sales School sprung from the vision of Katharine Drexel, an heiress and socialite from Philadelphia, who devoted her vast fortune and nearly her entire life to the empowerment and education of Native and African American people in the United States. When Katharine joined the church in 1889, she shocked the social circles of Philadelphia, making headlines in the city’s society pages with her decision.

St. Francis de Sales was the first of 55 schools for disadvantaged African Americans opened by Katharine in her lifetime. The school was built on a former plantation that had once housed slaves. It was built with the finest materials and furnished in a fashion that would promote dignity, self-respect and learning. While tuition was $60 a year, scholarships and financial aid was provided to those who could not pay the fees.

St. Francis, named after Katharine’s father, was also referred to as “Castle Rock.” And for many of the girls who came to this school, it was, indeed, a castle where they had an opportunity to make their dreams of learning and enrichment come true.

Earlier, in 1895, Katharine’s sister, Lousie Drexel Morrell, had purchased the adjoining plot of land and its accompanying mansion, named Belmead, where she and her husband opened the St. Emma Military Academy for Boys. Like St. Francis, St. Emma was also a school for African Americans.

In the more than 70 years that these schools operated, they saw nearly 20,000 students pass through their hallowed halls. And while the schools closed in the early 1970s, St. Francis and St. Emma alumnae remain close, bonded by an experience that many consider rare and precious.

The more than 2,200 acres that make up the combined St. Francis / St. Emma campus is owned by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, which was also founded by Katharine Drexel. Operating under the title of FrancisEmma, Inc., the site is now home to a non-profit organization devoted to environmental and historic preservation.

Fortunately, Belmead has fared a better fate and, today, houses the Thomas Berry Educational Center and a preschool, as well as hosting special events, including weddings.

In 2000, Katharine Drexel (1858-1955) was named a saint by the Catholic Church. One of only two American-born saints, her legacy was one of dedication, service and compassion.

During the time that it was open, St. Francis de Sales graduated many distinguished alumnae, among them authors, activists and educators. And while the school that she built with such passion and grace is slowly crumbling, her vision lives on in the generations of women whom she empowered.

If you would like to learn more about St. Francis de Sales School or participate in efforts to save this magnificent piece of history, be sure to visit Katharine’s Foundation or FrancisEmma, Inc.

In the meantime, let us know what you know of this school and its remarkable history. Did you or anyone you know attend school here? Have you visited the site? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

Anna Strock
Virginia staff writer for Only in Your State, freelance writer and journalist. Even though Anna has lived other places, somehow Virginia is where she always seems to land.