James Morris - Biography

by Sandra Morris Kemp


        James Morris was one of the slaves/Freedmen on Belmead Plantation and one of the employees at St. Emma's Industrial and Agricultural Institute. He labored on Belmead property for 66 years as a carpenter and miller. He was born in Surry County, Virginia around 1820. He came to Belmead Plantation with Phillip St. George Cocke in the 1830's. He died in Mohemenco, Powhatan, Virginia in 1902 and was buried in his homestead cemetery. The cemetery is located south of Cartersville Road and west of Bell Road.


        Around 1840, James (carpenter) and his brother Alfred (stonemason), skilled laborers, were involved in the construction on Belmead property. During this time, he married Priscilla Sturdivant, housemaid. She was born in Surry, Virginia. Their first child, Kitty, was born in 1849 on Belmead.


        During the 1850s, James' wife Priscilla, and several of his children, including Nellie and Tucker, died and were buried in the Belmead Slave Cemetery. Two of their children, Kitty and Hailey, survived to adulthood.


        Around 1860, James began a new career as a miller and found a new pardner, Jane Chambers from Bear Garden Plantation in Buckingham County, Virginia. Of the children born to Jane and James, seven survived to adulthood. Daughter Kate ("Kitty") married Taylor Ford in 1868 in Fauquier, Virginia and settled in Marshall, Virginia.


        As a Freedman/sharecropper during reconstruction, James began labor under John Bowdoin Cocke, Phillip's son. In 1870 James' brother, Reverend Alfred Morris, founded Mount Zion Baptist Church, Powhatan, Virginia. Three of Jane's and James' children were buried in the Old Mt. Zion Baptist Church Cemetery. After Reconstruction, James purchased 54 acres of land about 1/2 mile from Belmead. The tract of land remains in the family. James built his home, farmed, and continued to work as a miller on Belmead during the early days of St. Emma's (1895-1970).


        During the 1880s/1890s, James' brother Alfred, infant granddaughter, daughter-in-law, son, and sister, Melvina Taylor died and were buried at community church cemeteries. Also during this period local ministers, E. T. Jefferson and Theophilus Harris, performed marriage ceremonies for James' two nephews, niece, two daughters, and two sons.


        James died in 1902 and left a legacy of "Belmead ties." Two grandsons/nephew worked as Belmead trades instructors and educated thousands of youths from across the United States for four decades. Another grandson delivered mail using a row boat to cross the James River at Rock Castle and was employed at Belmead for 50 years. One grandson and his father (James' son) built the ferries and passenger boats. The St. Francis students referred to the ferry as the "old Robert E. Lee" or the "flat." According to the builder (1907-1999) a ferry is submerged in the river and tied to the bank. The ferry is visible when the river is low. The same grandson helped to build the dam in 1921 and constructed the power plant building. Other decendants worked as tradesmen, agricultral laborers, maintenance men, and domestics. Several of James' granddaughters/nieces attended the St. Emma's Parochial School (1897-1938) for children of employees.


        Sixty-one years after James' death, his grandsons (Belmead and St. Francis employees) petitioned the courts to integrate the Powhatan Public Schools. The first African-American graduate of the high school was James Morris' great-granddaughter. Several of his great-granddaughters graduated from St. Francis de Sales School. Now his descendants serve on Francis/Emma, Inc. Board of Directors, Advisory Committee, and Belmead Granary Planning Circle.


** Taken from: Cocke's Belmead Plantation to Freedom: An African American Family's Documented Sojourn by Sandra Morris Kemp, 2004.**