Family stories inspired research, book
For as long as she can remember, Sandra Kemp, 74, has been listening to her older relatives’ stories about her ancestors’ experiences in slavery and beyond.
“I was always interested in personal stories of ancestors, especially those who lived through the Reconstruction [after the Civil War],” Kemp said in an interview with Fifty Plus.
Since she was a young adult, Kemp has searched for documents verifying the stories she had heard as a child, gathering reams of information along the way.
Several years ago, when Kemp was researching at what used to be Belmead Plantation in Powhatan, the county where she was raised, she met another researcher who asked her how she planned to recognize the 400th year of African slaves coming to Virginia.
Kemp decided then to put together the material she had compiled into a book, and The Journey for Justice was published in April 2020.
“I wanted to preserve African American history and heritage and put together information not readily available to the public,” she said.
The scope of The Journey for Justice is ambitious. It characterizes the experiences of Black Americans living through slavery, Reconstruction, segregation and integration, all from the perspectives of Kemp’s family members.
Linked to Belmead Plantation
For decades, Kemp conducted research at a variety of locations, including the University of Virginia, where she researched the Cocke family, who owned land in Surry County as early as the 1630s, as well as in Powhatan and Fluvanna.
The Cockes owned both Mount Pleasant and Four Mile Tree Plantations
in Surry County, where Kemp’s ancestors, including her great-great-grandmother Rebecca, were enslaved.
Kemp also spent time researching Belmead, which was purchased by Philip St. George Cocke in the mid-1800s. Decades later it became the site of schools for Black children — and an important location for Kemp’s family.
“Our family’s association with Belmead lasted for over 180 years,” Kemp said.
Kemp’s great-grandfather, James Morris, son of Rebecca, was enslaved alongside other relatives at Belmead, and then worked there during Reconstruction. Kemp found records revealing that Morris worked as a carpenter and then a miller.
“He worked for 66 years in the plantation and left a legacy of Belmead ties,” Kemp said.
During Reconstruction, Morris purchased 54 acres a half-mile from the plantation. That land remains in the family today.
Kemp’s father, Ivory, also had ties to Belmead. He and his brother taught at St. Emma’s Military Academy for Boys, which was established on that land in 1895 by Edward Morrell and Louise Drexel Morrell. (St. Francis de Sales, an all-Black school for girls, was established there in 1899 by Saint Katharine Drexel of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.)
‘No one spoke to us’
Kemp is determined to educate young people about Black Americans’ experience. She learned firsthand from her family the benefits of education and the challenges many Americans faced accessing education.
In 1963, Kemp’s parents, along with other Powhatan families, pushed for the integration of the Powhatan County Schools. Kemp and her sisters were among the first 65 African American students to attend formerly white schools in Powhatan County.
At the time, Kemp was a junior and, because the other two Black students who entered as juniors later left the school, she became the first African American graduate of Powhatan High School.
“The teachers and students tolerated our presence,” Kemp wrote in The Journey for Justice. “It was a very isolating experience; no one spoke to us or befriended us.”
In the fall of 1967, Kemp entered VCU’s Art Foundations Program and later became the first African American to graduate from VCU’s School of Fashion Design.
After graduating, she pursued work in fashion design and then eventually earned a graduate degree in adult education from the University of District of Columbia and a degree in extension education from the University of Maryland. (Extension education is designed to extend the resources and knowledge of universities to their surrounding communities.)
Kemp said she chose to continue her family’s association with agriculture and education, studying at land-grant universities and becoming the first African American to serve as USDA/Colorado State University 4-H extension agent.
Throughout her career, Kemp worked in extension education, as well as public housing. In her most recent job, she taught literacy skills to incarcerated women, helping them earn their GEDs.
“The students were dedicated and spent their time wisely,” Kemp wrote. “It was rewarding to observe.”
A passion for justice
The title of Kemp’s book focuses on justice, a concern throughout Kemp’s life. While working as an extension agent in Colorado, for instance, Kemp fought against unfair compensation after noting a pattern in which male employees received better performance reviews and more compensation than female employees.
While employed at the Virginia Correctional Center for Women, Kemp filed a complaint advocating for reasonable accommodations. A diabetic, Kemp was distressed when the center stopped allowing employees to bring their own food and did not provide the food she needed.
Kemp has spent her life fighting for justice, so it’s fitting that her book focuses on a journey for justice and ends with hope for the future.
When describing the image of a ship on her book’s cover, Kemp said she chose not to use a familiar image of the interior of a ship with people packed “like sardines” as they left Africa.
“Instead,” Kemp said, “I wanted to show African Americans sailing from racism and discrimination to justice and equality.”