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Historic schoolhouse becomes African American history museum in Chesapeake

City officials, residents and school alumnae cut the ribbon for the Cornland School Museum on Saturday, June 29, 2024 in Chesapeake. The school was started by freed African Americans during Reconstruction and educated Black students through the 1950s.
Photo by Cianna Morales
City officials, residents and school alumnae cut the ribbon for the Cornland School Museum on Saturday, June 29, 2024 in Chesapeake. The school was started by freed African Americans during Reconstruction and educated Black students through the 1950s.

The Cornland School predated desegregation and was one of the oldest schools for Black students in the region. Now, it’s a museum teaching future generations.

Relocated and rebuilt, the Cornland School — a one-room schoolhouse that served Black children in Chesapeake before desegregation — is continuing its mission to educate the community.

The school, built in 1902, was slowly falling down at its original location on Benefit Road. Water was rising and plants and wildlife were encroaching on the old building when community members and city officials started raising money to save it 14 years ago.

In 2021, the school was moved 6.2 miles to Glencoe Street, and a ribbon cutting last week welcomed alumnae and local residents to the newly restored building, now a museum.

“I can’t describe it,” said Mildred Brown, an alumna, at the event. “The last time I saw it, it was in crumbles.”

Brown, a lifelong Chesapeake resident, attended the school when she was 6 years old. She will turn 94 next month.

She and three other women, all in their 80s and 90s, toured the restored building then circled a Maypole — a tradition that has traveled from one continent to another, and has deep roots in African American history.

Emma Nixon, 88, and Pauline Sykes Smith, 89, walked with colorful ribbons wrapped around their hands. They both attended Cornland. Wanza Snead completed the group. Her husband went to the school too.

The building was located on the Sneads’ property, and it was Snead who approached Chesapeake councilmember Ella P. Ward in 2010 about preserving it.

The group of women represent the last surviving classes of the school. It closed its doors around 1953, according to the Cornland School Foundation, a group dedicated to its preservation. Brown v. Board of Education, the supreme court ruling to desegregate schools, was decided in 1954.

Before that, Cornland had been operating since Reconstruction. Some historical records indicate it started in 1885.

It was founded by formerly enslaved people, and is one of the region’s earliest Reconstruction-era efforts at formalized education for African American students. In 1902, an old school building was sold for $18. Another structure — the current Cornland School — was built for $314.50.

Raising money to preserve the school has been a labor of love, councilmember Ward said. She chairs the Cornland School Foundation, and the group has been meeting monthly for the last 13 years.

Ward initially raised $150,000 through fundraisers, but it wasn’t enough to move the school. The city contributed $400,000. The Parks, Recreation and Tourism office also contributed the 12 acres of land where the school now stands on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp near Lake Drummond.

“This is the cornerstone of what’s going to be a historical district in the city of Chesapeake for years to come,” Ward said, “so that people know what it was like for people of color, for African Americans to go to school in 1903.”

A $5 million contribution from the state will go toward the historical district as well.

The Cornland School is a stop on Chesapeake’s African American Heritage Trail. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.

The schoolhouse, with its fresh coat of white paint, shined in the sunlight the Saturday it made its debut as a museum. Inside, a classroom is recreated with school desks, a teacher’s desk and a chalkboard. The roof was replaced, and lighting, air conditioning and a ramp added.

But elements of the original building remain — in the walls, the floors and the original potbelly stove that used to be stoked to keep students warm.

The historical classroom is augmented with modern displays that tell the story of the school, like posters and a touch screen that plays video interviews.

Sykes Smith attended Cornland School in 1947.

“I’m just enjoying what I see,” she said. “It’s beautiful inside and out.”

Nixon said the refurbished building brings back many memories.

“It’s so good that they finally got it here and the Lord spared me to see it,” she said. “I’m thankful to everybody that helped to get it done. They did a good, good job and I’m so proud of it.”

People streamed through the one-room schoolhouse on ribbon cutting day. Two friends visiting said the building brought history to light to share with future generations. A mother and her three children explored the classroom, examining books tucked under miniature school desks and the stove in the center of the room. A boy rang the bell on the teacher’s desk, as if to signal school is in session.

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