James Solomon Russell: Educator, Archdeacon and Saint of Southern Virginia

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Norman, Worth E Jr
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African-American history , Diocese of Southern Virginia of the Episcopal Church , St. Paul's College , General Education Board , American Church Institute for Negroes , Slavery , Sewanee Conference , Colored Convocation , Southside Virginia , Archdeacon
The subject of this paper is James Solomon Russell, an ex-slave and founder of St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Virginia. Russell also served as Archdeacon for Colored Work in the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia from 1893 to 1929. This study covers the time from Russell’s birth in 1857 to his death in 1935. It takes into account the non-stop efforts of Russell toward reconciliation within the Episcopal Church among whites and African-Americans. It will be argued using established historical facts that James Solomon Russell was not only a leader, but possibly the pivotal player in the development of educational access for former slaves within the Episcopal Church in the period from post Reconstruction to the early 20th century. He was also, as alluded to above, the human linchpin holding in dialogue and debate rival positions concerning the full and equal participation of African-Americans in the governance of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Southern Virginia. When the Diocese of Southern Virginia was created out of the undivided Diocese of Virginia in 1892-93 Russell was appointed Archdeacon for Colored Work, a charge that lasted until 1929. It is the work as Archdeacon, as well as that of principal of St. Paul’s, that gave Russell a platform in working for full acceptance of African-Americans not only within the Diocese of Southern Virginia but in the Episcopal Church as a whole. Perhaps Russell’s most aggressive opposition came from the American Church Institute for Negroes (ACIN) and its first executive director, Samuel Bishop. The ACIN, formed in 1906, was the Episcopal Church’s successor organization to previous church agencies attempting to fund colored schools after the end of Reconstruction. But the ACIN and Samuel Bishop had problems with Russell and the manner in which he operated the St. Paul school. Bishop actually underwrote the cost of a trip to Europe for Russell to get him out of the country while he and the ACIN tried to take over the operation of the school. In 1999 the book Dangerous Donations: Northern Philanthropy and Southern Black Education, 1902-1930 was published by Eric Anderson and Alfred Moss, Jr. The book is about efforts of wealthy Northern philanthropists attempting not only to fund but to control the funding mechanisms of all similar philanthropic agencies assisting Southern black schools and colleges. The leader agency was the General Education Board (GEB) established by the Rockefeller Foundation in 1902. As a case study Anderson and Moss spend two of their seven chapters on the ACIN. In those chapters they track the beginnings of ACIN, modeled on the GEB, and its on-going operational and funding problems and their problems with James Solomon Russell. The battles within the Church were of a longer-term nature. Russell’s platform as archdeacon gave him multiple opportunities to speak and deliver his message or plea for a change of heart regarding African-American representation in the Church. Primarily working within his own Diocese of Southern Virginia, Russell’s oratorical skill was not overlooked by others within the larger Church. Russell was also a participant in the national debate over liberal arts vs. industrial education. Though not of the national notoriety of Booker T. Washington, Russell had his own battles with educators, parents and the church over industrial education. Russell was able to satisfy most of his students’ parents and his outside funding agencies. In 1996 the Diocese of Southern Virginia honored the memory of James Solomon Russell by making him a “local saint.” The diocese submitted a memorial to General Convention 2009 to make a Commemoration in the church calendar for Russell. Despite these two acts it is the writer’s belief that Russell is under-represented in church, educational and historical literature for the significant contributions he made. The writer of this thesis paper is making an effort to interpret Russell’s thinking based on available documentation and the results of his efforts through history. Therefore, this paper might be considered an interpretive biography of James Solomon Russell.