Standing in one of Richmond’s most distinguished spots is Bellevue Elementary School. Located in the St. Johns Church Historic District (of Church Hill) at 2301 East Grace Street, the school also houses a museum recognizing the site’s esteemed history.
On that lot in 1801, John Adams, the mayor of Richmond, built his mansion. In 1836, the Van Lew family became the owners. Elizabeth Van Lew, abolitionist, daughter of a wealthy businessman, and Union spy, used the mansion to hide Union soldiers who had escaped from Libby Prison during the Civil War. She has also been credited, with former slave, Mary Jane Richards, with helping to lead over 100 prisoners to safety through an underground tunnel. In order to avoid detection and the risk of her own capture, Miss Van Lew, also known as “Crazy Bet”, disguised her nature through a disheveled appearance and by talking to herself on public streets. Many folks, including Confederate soldiers, left her alone. After the war, her efforts to end slavery with her allegiance and support to the Union were revealed – reviled by supporters of the Lost Cause; revered by others. She was soon appointed as U. S. Postmaster of Richmond.
In 1911, the City of Richmond acquired the property and ordered its demolition. It is widely believed that since Richmond was the capitol of the Confederacy during the war, the city’s action represented its lingering anger towards the history of the residence and the Van Lew family.
Also of worthy note to the site is its recognition as the birthplace of one the nation’s most prominent women – Maggie L. Walker, the daughter of a black servant in the Van Lew home. When Mrs. Walker founded Consolidated Bank & Trust, she became the first black woman bank president in the country. She was also the first female bank president of any race at the time. Her home, located at 600 N. 2nd Street in the city’s Jackson Ward district, is a National Historic Landmark. A statue in her honor was erected at the intersection of Adams and Broad Streets in 2017.
In the early-twentieth century, Bellevue School was originally located at 21st and Broad Streets. After the mansion’s demolition, William Leigh Carneal of the esteemed architecture firm, Carneal and Johnston, was commissioned to design a new school for the vacant two-acre parcel. His impressive Gothic Revival, a 66,000 square foot structure of brick with terra cotta tiling, is also termed “The Castle on the Hill”. When the school’s new location on Grace Street was completed in 1912, it operated as an elementary school for a couple of years before conversion to the neighborhood junior high.
Once East End Junior High School opened in 1919, Bellevue was once again an elementary school, along with Chimborazo, Nathaniel Bacon, and Helen Dickinson (the former Fairmount School) schools. From 1955 until desegregation in the early 1970’s, Bellevue became one of the city’s elementary schools solely for black students.
In 1975, the school was the scene of a horrible fire that erupted during school hours. All of the children were evacuated safely. Students and staff were given temporary classrooms and offices at Mosby Middle (now Martin Luther King Middle) before transferring to the nearby Bowler School building. They remained there for the following two years while Bellevue was renovated to recover from the fire and undergo required upgrading. (I personally know about this moment… my classmates and I were there that day.)
Bellevue Model Elementary School, as it’s also been known since 1971, has long
Photo: Tonya Rice
offered its students an impressive curriculum emphasizing academic achievement along with the appreciation and involvement in visual and performing arts. In 1978, the principal dedicated the celebrated “The Dancing Man” statue to the school. The sculpture is featured prominently on the front lawn recognizing the school’s dedication to the arts.
Bellevue sits between two renowned historic markers of the city. St. John’s Episcopal Church, where Patrick Henry gave his “Give Me Liberty” speech, is one block away. Always in glorious view and also just a block away is the Taylor Hill Overlook featuring the city’s ever-changing landscape. In addition to the museum, which is open to the public during school hours, Bellevue Elementary School also offers a great place for young students and many others to start learning about Richmond’s history simply by its location. I remain grateful for my time there!
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