Historic schoolhouse that served Black students in Chesapeake, Virginia, is being restored

Nov. 13, 2023
The restored Cornland School, built by freed slaves in 1903, will offer exhibits detailing its impact.

City leaders in Chesapeake, Virginia, have broken ground on a long-awaited project to restore school building that educated Black children in the early 1900s.

WVEC-TV reports that the city plans to transform the historic Cornland School  into a place where people can learn about the school's impact.  Multiple exhibitions will include interviews of teachers and former students.

Situated off Highway 17 near the Great Dismal Swamp, freed slaves built the school in 1903 to teach Black children in what was then Norfolk County. 

Chesapeake City Councilwoman Ella Ward formed the Cornland School Foundation in 2010, after the owners of the property discovered the dilapidated building in the woods and asked Ward to help restore it.

“I just know the value of the history of preserving what it was for our people of color, Black people, to go to school in 1903,” said Ward, a former educator. “Black people were not even supposed to be getting an education and really, they weren’t even taught to read.” 

The renovated school building should open to the public next spring.

The restoration is part of a larger project to transform eight acres of land into the Historical Village at the Dismal Swamp. The Cornland School renovations are part of the first phase, which will include a new visitor center, connection to the Dismal Swamp Canal Trail and other exhibits. 

So far, nearly $9 million in federal, state and local funds have been allocated to eventually showcase the stories of the Indigenous groups who first inhabited the area, early colonists and people of African descent, as well as the Dismal Swamp's role in trade, commerce and agriculture. 


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