A Man and his Work:
The Life Story of Archdeacon James Solomon Russell
Founder of the St. Paul Normal and Industrial School
(Now Saint Paul’s College)
By ROBERTA ARNOLD
James Solomon Russell was born on the Hendrick estate, Mecklenburg County, Virginia on December 20, 1857, four years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. His parents were slaves, his maternal grandmother having been sold in Palmer Springs shortly after her arrival from Africa. She and her daughter Seleah worked in the “Big House.” Seleah had four daughters and two sons. One of these daughters, Araminta, was the mother of James Solomon Russell. Solomon Russell, his father, was a slave on the Russell plantation, Warren County, North Carolina, and as his parents were separated, paternal companionship was denied until after the Civil War when his parents joined each other and began the struggle of making a home.
Archdeacon Russell was married December 20, 1882 to Virginia Mimigan Morgan, fourth daughter of the Honorable Peter C. Morgan of Petersburg, Virginia. Mrs. Russell was a real helpmate in every sense of the word. God blessed this union with five children, two sons and three daughters. The eldest child, Araminta, served as registrar of Saint Paul’s College until her death, June 30th, 1937. James Alvin, the elder son, was elected principal of the school by the Board of Trustees following the resignation of his father in 1929, and in 1936 was made president by action of that same body. Archdeacon Russell died in the president’s home on the St. Paul’s Campus, March 28th, 1935, after an illness of long duration.
Archdeacon Russell’s boyhood was one of hardship and privation. His newly emancipated parents, left to fight their own battles and live their own lives, found the new experience an arduous one and had to call upon the lad to perform many duties of the farm and share the burden of earning his “daily bread.” Araminta Russell, herself completely uneducated was determined that her son (whom she named Solomon, not so much because it was his father’s name, as “because she hoped he would be wise”) get as much education as possible. His formal schooling was often interrupted because there was no money and his help was needed on the farm. But she would never let him become discouraged, and as soon as the burden became lighter, she would start him back to school again.
As a student he showed marked ability. His keen mind attracted the attention of the visiting superintendent, who called the boy aside and advised him to try to go to Hampton. This sudden and surprising advice was eagerly related to his parents who were greatly pleased and willing for the boy to try. More time than ever was devoted to the farm during the summer, and in the fall of 1874, with $22 in the pocket of his first suit (spun by his grandmother and made by his mother) he arrived on the campus of Hampton Normal and Industrial Institute. In spite of the fact that he worked hard, both at school and during vacations, to help defray his expenses, he was compelled twice to leave Hampton because of lack of funds. Though discouraged, he did not despair and determinedly stuck to his frequently interrupted studies.
Decides to Prepare for the Ministry
When Archdeacon Russell was a lad people would frequently say to his Mother, “that boy will some day become a good preacher.” This pleased her very much and fulfillment of this prophecy was ever in her mind as she deprived herself in order to keep him in school. Another vital influence in the shaping of his life was Mr. John E. P. Wright, superintendent of the white Sunday School at Palmer Springs. Mr. Wright became interested in the colored boys and girls and started a Sunday School for them. James Solomon Russell and his two cousins were the first pupils. After three years of close contact as teacher Mr. Wright recommended that young Russell take over the job of teaching the Sunday School and succeed him as Superintendent. Stumbling across the Apostle’s Creed, and later finding an old Book of Common Prayer, he became interested in the Episcopal service and when he decided to enter the ministry made up his mind to serve in the Episcopal Church.
With no knowledge of how he should prepare himself for the priesthood he took his problem to Mrs. Pattie E. Buford of Lawrenceville. Mrs. Buford was deeply interested in missionary work among colored people and referred his case to The Rt. Rev. F. M. Whittle, Bishop of the undivided Diocese of Virginia. Bishop Whittle directed the Rev. Robert White to go to Hampton to find out what he could about the young aspirant, and later appointed a commission to meet with him and formulate plans for his future training. This commission decided to give him an opportunity for preparation by starting a branch of the Theological Seminary of Virginia at St. Stephen’s Church, Petersburg, Virginia. This “branch” became the Bishop Payne Divinity School for the training of colored men for the Episcopal priesthood.
During the four years spent in Petersburg Archdeacon Russell was under the direct guidance of Rev. Giles Buckner Cooke, rector of St. Stephen’s Church, a former major in the Army of the Confederacy. This teacher-student relationship was the beginning of a golden friendship between the two men. So strong were the bonds of friendship that Major Cooke on many occasions publicly expressed the desire that the Archdeacon officiate at his funeral. As the Major outlived the Archdeacon the Rev. J. Alvin Russell, elder son of the Archdeacon, then president of the school, was asked to serve in his father’s stead.
Ordained to the Diaconate
After four profitable years at Petersburg, his formal student days were ended and on March 9, 1882 James Solomon Russell was ordained to the diaconate of the Episcopal Church by the Bishop of the undivided Diocese of Virginia, the Rt. Rev. F. M. Whittle, who four years previously had opened the way for the Archdeacon’s training. Bishop Whittle appointed him as missionary to Brunswick and Mecklenburg Counties, and on March 16th, 1882, at the age of twenty-four, James Solomon Russell reached Lawrenceville, Virginia to assume his duties. It is interesting to note that it was at Lawrenceville that he had met the Commission, which under the direction of Bishop Whittle, had been responsible for the opportunity for training.
Begins Missionary Work
Archdeacon Russell found the scene of his new work far from attractive. Little did he dream that more than fifty years of labor at this place were ahead of him. Nor could he visualize the remarkable change, the far-reaching influence, the magnitude of accomplishment that would result. With but a score of communicants, no church building, race prejudice intense, public opinion indifferent, Negroes poor and ignorant, and no school in the immediate community, he set to work. For eleven months he conducted his services in the St. Andrews Church, (the white Episcopal Church). In May he attended for the first time the Diocesan Council of Virginia and there he appealed for a house of worship. At the close of the session $300 was placed in his hands for a church building and also funds with which to purchase a horse and saddle to take him over his missionary circuit. This horse became a familiar figure in Southside Virginia and was affectionately referred to as “Ida, the Missionary Horse.”
School Is Started
On the first day of January, 1883 the Archdeacon and his young wife opened a parish school in the vestry room of the little mission church. Soon these quarters became too small and larger accommodations were urgently needed. Inspired by the conviction that the people were eager for education he set himself to the task of finding means to enlarge the school.
Through the generosity of the late Rev. Mr. Saul of Philadelphia, a two-story frame building was erected. This was the “Genesis” of St. Paul, for in this building the Normal School was started, September 24, 1888. In less than two years the school had outgrown these quarters and again he was faced with a problem that was to confront him over and over again throughout the years: adequate buildings and equipment to meet the need of the constantly increasing student body.
But step by step, acre by acre, building by building, department by department the school developed. If asked how he had accomplished so much with so little the Archdeacon invariably replied, “St. Paul’s Normal and Industrial School was founded on faith in God.” And those who have followed this work have repeatedly seen evidences of this “faith that moved mountains.” Not only the mountains of material need in some critical crises, but the mountains of race prejudice, hostile public opinion, skeptical criticism and incredulous ignorance gradually receded before the indefatigable courage of this remarkable character.
In the Councils of the Church
The Archdeacon’s interest in the Episcopal Church went hand in hand with his interest in the school. When ordained to the diaconate in 1882, there was only one colored Episcopal congregation in the state of Virginia. Today in Southside Virginia there are numerous churches and organized missions with thousands of communicants. Most of these were founded and fathered by him until they could call their own rector. In 1893 he was named Archdeacon of the Diocese of Southern Virginia to give impetus to the colored work. He was the first Negro to be appointed to any department of the Board of Missions of the National Council and served eight years (1923-1931) as an additional member of the Department of Christian Social Service of the National Council. He attended eleven consecutive triennial sessions of the General Assembly. In 1917 the highest honor his church could bestow was accorded him, namely he was elected Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese of Arkansas. Eleven months later he was asked to accept the Suffragan Bishopric of the Diocese of North Carolina. In declining the bishopric he wrote Bishop Winchester as follows:
June 20, 1917.
My dear Bishop Whittle: . . . I have from the time I received Archdeacon Johnson’s Telegram informing me of my election as Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese of Arkansas, given this whole matter my most prayerful and serious consideration. Hence, I assure you that I have not hastily arxived at my decision.
I have labored in one field during my whole ministry of thirty-five years and three months. Twenty-one years of my ministry have been spent in building up the St. Paul Normal and Industrial School. This institution was founded on faith in God and the generosity of its friends; for at the time the task was undertaken there was not a foot of ground or a penny in sight for its support, yet through the providence of God the work has gone forward steadily each day from its founding, July 2, 1888, until now it is the largest institution of the Protestant Episcopal Church for the moral, spiritual, intellectual and industrial training of colored boys and girls. . . . From its very insignificant beginning, the school owns 1,600 acres of valuable land, over forty buildings, large and small. . . . This, of course, puts the school well beyond the experimental stage. . . .
Aside from the property value of the institution there have come to us for the training of the head, hand and the heart pretty close to 5,000 boys and girls, and nearly one-firth of these have completed their education in books and some useful trades and are now devoting their lives to the uplift or their less fortunate brethren. These are the school’s living epistles, ministers and messengers, known and read by those with whom they come in contact. Among this great army of workers are twenty of the successful clergymen of our Church. . . .
Now, my dear Bishop, I have cited the above simply to give you some further idea of the many ties which bind me so closely to the work which has claimed the best and largest number of the years of my life. . . . Apart from the education work to which I have referred, I should mention the further fact that I have had the pleasure of seeing the Church work among my people grow from one congregation and less than 200 communicants to 37 churches and more than 2,000 communicants. . . . These ties are very close and my heart is bound up with them and my friends or both races, whom I know and love very dearly. . . . I am sorry finally that I cannot see my way clear to accept this gracious call from your Diocese to serve my people in the great Southwest.
Again thanking you and your Council from the depths of my heart for the honor that you and they have conferred upon me, believe me, my dear Bishop, your humble and most grateful servant.
Characteristics and Educational Ideals
Archdeacon Russell was a Christ-like man. One could not be in his presence without sensing a radiance that came from a close communication with God, a spiritual fortitude that tansmuted itself into all he did. His resolute endurance, impregnable determination and placid judgment seemed endowed with some hidden force and demanded not only respect but reverence. The Archdeacon was deeply influenced by the type of training he received as a student at Hampton. The deplorable condition of the men and women of his parish, entirely dependent upon farming as a means of livelihood made him realize the importance of training of the hands as well as he head. But this did not go far enough. Devoutly religious himself, he felt that it was useless to educate the head and train the hand if the heart was neglected. And thus, his three-fold purpose was instilled into the building of the St. Paul’s Normal and Industrial School.
Tributes of Esteem and Honors Bestowed
Saying little Russell could not but win admiration and esteem. And so it was that he was sought in his beloved Virginia town and honors bestowed upon him. He was a member of Phi Gamma Mu, National Honorary Social Service Society; was created Knight Commander of the Humane Order of African Redemption by the President of Liberia and was given the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity by the Virginia Theological Seminary, at Alexandria the only Negro to be so honored. He was a member of the National Council’s Department of Christian Social Service and the first Negro to be a member of the Council’s departments. In 1929 he was given the Harmon Award for meritorious service to his people. Twice elected to this episcopate, he declined both offers in order to remain with the school which he had founded. He resigned the principalship of the school in 1929 and was succeeded by his son, The Rev. J. Alvin Russell. The Honorable Edward P. Buford, former Commonwealth’s Attorney, and a member of the House of Delegates, on the occasion of the presentation of the Harmon Award said:
Perhaps I may have a longer recollection than most of you here present. My recollection goes back to the time when Archdeacon Russell came to this town. I can remember when all these hills were covered with woods. . . . For over twenty-five years I was prosecuting attorney for this county and during all of that time I never had any charge to come up against a student or the management of St. Paul’s. My successor can bear witness to the same testimony. No one in this community can fail to recognize the splendid character of the school’s work and its great value. Archdeacon Russell has been a benefactor, not only to his own race, but to the whole community as well. His life has been one of strenuous endeavor and high achievement and when his shadow lengthens toward the west, he is entitled to the consolation which it would bring and the love and respect of both races among whom he has labored the major part of this life.
In closing the Founder’s Day Exercises, March 9, 1931 Bishop Thomson said: Archdeacon Russell, I convey to you on this Founder’s Day this tribute or affection and admiration. I say to you, students and faculty, the best tribute you can pay Dr. Russell is to hold high and steadfast the standards of St. Paul’s — the things for which it has always stood; faithful work well done, a clean body, straight thinking, and a head always bowed to God. In this community or county and throughout the state and nation, he has given his people wonderful inspiration, not only to his race but to those of the opposite group. The best tribute that can be paid Dr. Russell is to see this work shall not fail, but grow and strengthen, and that it shall not only outlive its founder, but shall outlive those who are now called upon to carry it on, giving to the whole country an immortal girt endowed by James S. Russell.
Editor’s Note: James Russell Solomon was named a Local Saint during the 1996 Winter Session of the 104th Annual Council of the Episcopal Church of the Diocese of Southern Virginia.
On September 4, 1888,
The Saint Paul Normal and
Industrial School opened in
the first classroom building
built, The Saul Building, with
less than a dozen students.
The Saul Building Today
Historic renovation and restoration commencing Fall 2011.