Cornland School is historically significant as one of the earliest efforts in Virginia to formally educate African American children not long after the Civil War. It is believed to be the only pre-Rosenwald school still standing in the Tidewater region. Rosenwald schools were the product of an early 20th-century collaboration between Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington. At its conclusion in 1932, the school construction program built nearly 5,000 schools throughout the south. Part of Cornland School’s rich legacy is that it was built with support from the surrounding black community with very little, if any, support from others.
Cornland School was initially established by formerly-enslaved people, not long after emancipation. Historic records indicate that there were three schools for black children in the Pleasant Grove District of Norfolk County (now Chesapeake) as early as 1871. Through the years, Cornland School was built, rebuilt, and sustained operations until the early 1950s.
During and after the Civil War, some of the earliest Virginia schools for black students were in people's homes or churches. At that time, structures constructed to be schools probably looked like Cornland School. They were simple frame buildings, often strategically placed so that the sun came in the east and west windows because there was no electricity. There was also no running water.
The one-room schoolhouse that stands today was built in 1902. Cornland School operated from 1903 until 1952. One teacher was responsible for teaching children of varying ages, for grade one through grade seven, all in one room. There was a potbelly stove in the center of the room. Children helped build a fire for heating and cooking. School alumni shared memories of the teacher cooking a pot of beans, or whatever they had, to serve the students lunch.
Alumni residing in Chesapeake and surrounding areas have shared first-hand accounts of their experiences at the school. In 2020, alumni, Mildred Brown shared personal accounts of her walk to and from school. While school buses provided transportation for white children during this period, black children were required to walk to school, sometimes at a great distance. Mrs. Brown recalls being mocked and taunted by children on the bus while she walked alongside the road. Sometimes it was spitballs from the bus windows. At other times, it was worse. On one occasion, Mrs. Brown shared, “The bus driver stopped the bus, a child got off the bus, picked up some rocks and threw them at us . . . It is hard to believe. But it happened. I was there.”
The building as it stands today is on the property of Wanda Snead, whose husband Randolph Snead attended the Cornland School. Around 2010, Mrs. Snead sought help from Chesapeake Councilwoman Dr. Ella P. Ward. The structure was covered in brush, with evidence of occupation by various wildlife. Today, the Cornland School Foundation works diligently to preserve and showcase the history and culture of African American early education in Chesapeake, the Hampton Roads region, the state, and the nation.
The schoolhouse is on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.
To learn more about the history of Cornland School listen to Podcast Episode 1: Cornland School - Uncovering an Educational Haven for African American Children.
There is no parking at Cornland School. This is a drive-by experience.