Summary of Cornland School History
by Olivia Tautkus
The Cornland School is believed to have been built by freed African Americans following the Civil War and is the last of the surviving schools in the Tidewater area serving the African American community to have been constructed without Rosenwald funds. A 1945 survey report by a committee appointed by the state Superintendent of Instruction indicates the Cornland School was built in 1885. 1. There is some gray area concerning the exact date that Cornland School was constructed as the Norfolk County, VA School Board Minutes Book [Pleasant Grove] August 15, 1902 – April 22, 1922 meeting minutes dated 8/15/1902 and 12/1/1902 indicate that the colored schoolhouse at Benefit (there was only one at that time) was sold and another structure built. From the minutes on 12/1/1902 and 12/1/1902, it appears that the “old” structure in existence was sold for $18 and another structure was built by T.B. Tuttle, who was compensated $314.50.2 This would seem to be corroborated by testimony by Ethel Snead Sykes that her father attended “up to the neck” behind the existing site and was taught by Amanda Sykes.3 The minutes indicating that an older structure was sold and another being built would seem to indicate that the building/land would have been owned by the county. This does appear to be the case as the land was owned by the Grimes family (Israel and then E.I.) from at least 1882 (possibly from 1860) until 1902.4 Although not showing exact property lines, it would appear this is corroborated by a survey of Norfolk County dated 1887.5 The land was then sold to John Waterfield on 9/30/1902.6 who subsequently willed it to Mary Catherine Lamb. Mary Catherine Lamb inherited the property via deed of partition on 2/5/1921.7 Israel and E.I Grimes, John Waterfield, and Mary Catherine Lamb were, according to census record, Caucasian.8 Therefore, the structure on the Snead property would have been on land owned by Caucasians from 1882 until 1946 when it was purchased by Lyman Snead, an African American.9 There is the possibility that the sliver of land on which the Cornland School sits was owned by the Sykes (Grimes’ western neighbor) as an exact survey of the Grimes property line at the time of Israel Grimes’ death has not been discovered. Admittedly, this seem very unlikely as the deed history does not seem to mention the Sykes. The possibility that the Grimes or John Waterfield were friends of African American education is certainly also a consideration. Another consideration is that the structure had been built for another use (perhaps a meeting house) and was repurposed as an African American schoolhouse. The Jarvis School, a recently restored nineteenth century African American school in North Carolina, is built in a similar fashion to the Cornland School. It is recommended that an architectural historian be consulted to verify if the construction of Cornland and Jarvis schools are particular to nineteenth century African American schools or schoolhouses of that era in general. Also of note is that there were 3 Cornland/Benefit schools – 2 white and 1 colored.10 The first appearance of 2 white schools – designated Cornland and Benefit – in addition to the colored school in the School Board meeting minutes occurs on 8/1/1907.11
Whether the structure currently known as the Cornland School dates from 1902 or earlier, there is overwhelming testimony that the structure on the Snead property operated as a colored school from at least the 1920s until about 1953. Mrs. Wanza Snead’s efforts at collecting oral history about Cornland School yield a wealth of information about former students and teachers, including photographs, personal testimony, and other rare documents like teacher certifications. In conversation with Mrs. Wanza Snead, there are former pupils of Cornland School still living who have declined to tell their stories due to the painful memories of segregation.
In conclusion, the Cornland School located on the Snead property would be a unique historical resource of African American history in the Tidewater region. Although there are some gray areas concerning its exact date of construction and the relationship of the likely Caucasian owners to African American education, there is certainly overwhelming oral testimony to its use as an African American school during the era of segregation. There are few, if any, one-room schools in the Tidewater region, let alone those which served the African American community in the early days of the African American struggle for education. Continued pursuit to preserve this historic treasure is certainly recommended.
- The School Building Needs of Norfolk County, A Report of the Committee appointed by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction to Survey the School Buildings and to Recommend a Building program to the School Officials of Norfolk County, dated July 1949, located in Chesapeake Public Schools’ Administration Building, Superintendent’s Office.
- Norfolk County, VA School Board Minute Book [Pleasant Grove] August 15, 1902 – April 22, 1922, pages 1 – 3, located in the Chesapeake Central Library, Wallace Room, secured stacks.
- Ethel Snead Sykes Interview, unknown publication, copy in Cornland School Research Binder located in Chesapeake City Hall, Planning Department.
- Norfolk County Chancery Book 4, pages 475 – 551; R. C. Marshall, Special Commissioner to Ernest I Grimes, Norfolk County Deed Book 122, Page 188; Ernest I. Grimes to John Waterfield, Norfolk County Deed Book 262, page 170; all above located in City of Chesapeake Circuit Court Record Room.
- Map of Norfolk County, Virginia, made for and published by the Board of Supervisors and drawn by Sykes and Gwathney, 1887, located in City of Chesapeake Circuit Court Record Room and Chesapeake Central Library, Wallace Room.
- Ernest I. Grimes to John Waterfield, Norfolk County Deed Book 262, page 170 located in City Chesapeake Circuit Court Records Room.
- Mary Catherine Lamb et vir and Barbara Ellen Mitchell, deed of partition, Norfolk County Deed Book 493, page 527, located in City of Chesapeake Circuit Court Records Room.
- 1870 Census: Grimes, Israel – Virginia – Norfolk – Pleasant Grove TWP – Age: 57, Race: White, Born: VA Series: M593, Roll: 1667, Page 321. 1900 Census: Waterfield, John Virginia, Norfolk, Pleasant Grove Dist. age 60, Male, Race: White, Born: NC Series; T623 Roll: 1719 Page: 61. 1880 Census: Lamb, Mary Catherine, Norfolk, Pleasant Grove Dist. Age 9, Female, Race: White, Born: VA Series: T9 Roll: 1380, Page 68.
- L. W. Lamb to Lyman Snead, Norfolk County Deed Book 816, Page 61, located in City of Chesapeake Circuit Court Records Room.
- Norfolk County, VA School Board Minute Book [Pleasant Grove] August 15, 1902 – April 22, 1922, page 1, located in the Chesapeake Central Library, Wallace Room, secured stacks.
- Norfolk County, VA School Board Minute Book [Pleasant Grove] August 15, 1902 – April 1922, page 58, located in the Chesapeake Central Library, Wallace Room, secured stacks.
It is unknown as to whether the building in this photograph is of the current Cornland School building or is possibly a former building that served as Cornland School.
Preserving the Past to Educate the Future
View a short presentation about Cornland School and the effort to preserve it.