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James Solomon Russell
*James Solomon Russell was born on this date in 1857. He was a Black teacher, minister, and administrator.
James Russell was born to Araminta, an enslaved woman on the Hendrick plantation in Mecklenburg County, VA. His enslaved father, Solomon Russell, worked on the Russell plantation in Warren County, North Carolina. After the Union victory in the American Civil War, he rejoined the family and began sharecropping.
Young James began attending a local school whose schoolmaster allowed tuition to be paid in labor and farm products to continue his education. He attended Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University) in 1874. Financial constraints required that he support himself and interrupt his education several times. After a year, he began teaching near home and worked when the college was not in session. Russell required students to recite the Apostles Creed daily in his elementary school curriculum.
This came to the attention of a local Episcopalian matron, who gave him a Book of Common Prayer, and Russell decided to become a member of that denomination. Russell's mother had long dreamed of her son becoming a priest and encouraged his education and ministerial aspirations. Mrs. Pattie Buford of Lawrenceville, Virginia, brought Russell's desire to become a priest to the attention of Bishop Francis McNeece Whittle. The latter sent a local priest to Hampton to investigate and secured Russell's admission to the newly formed Bishop Payne Divinity School (originally an offshoot of the Virginia Theological Seminary, which merged in 1953) in Petersburg, Virginia, in 1878.
Russell studied and worked closely with Rev. Giles Cooke, a Confederate officer who educated Blacks for four years. Although Rev. Cook expelled the student who became Rev. George Freeman Bragg, Russell became his protégé. In December 1882, Russell married Virginia Michigan Morgan of Petersburg, and the couple eventually had five sons and three daughters. Russell became a deacon on March 9, 1882. He did missionary work in Lawrenceville, Virginia, first holding services for Blacks at the white Episcopal Church, St. Andrew's. The following year, the diocese built a church for his parishioners and a horse to assist his missionary travels. In January 1883, Russell and his wife began teaching Blacks in the tiny new church room. He became a priest in 1887. In 1888, they bought another building with the Rev. Saul of Philadelphia.
Thus, Russell founded Saint Paul Normal and Industrial School. Due to his enthusiasm and aggressive fund-raising, it expanded its enrollment and curriculum. Meanwhile, in 1893, Rev. Russell was named Archdeacon of the newly formed Diocese of Southern Virginia and charged with working among Blacks. As a result of his ministry, the number of Black churches in his diocese (the newly formed Diocese of Southern Virginia) had increased from none to 37, with more than 2000 communicants. In 1904, Russell founded an annual farmer's conference. He urged Black farmers to stay out of debt and vote, although Virginia's Constitution in 1902 instituted poll taxes and Jim Crow Laws had begun.
He later became the first Black to be named to the Board of Missions of the Episcopal Church and served from 1923-1931. In 1917, Russell became Suffragan Bishop of Arkansas. Still, he declined the honor to continue his work at the school, as he did when notified of his election as Suffragan Bishop of North Carolina. As long anticipated, in 1919, the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia was created from the relatively new Diocese of Southern Virginia, and Lawrenceville became part of the new diocese. He retired as Principal and Chaplain in 1929, nine years after his wife's death, and the college's trustees elected his son, James Alvin Russell, to succeed him.
Archdeacon Russell was awarded an honorary degree from the Virginia Theological Seminary in 1917 and, in 1922, an honorary doctorate in law from Monrovia College. He was also named Knight Commander of the Humane Order of African Redemption by the President of Liberia. In 1929, he won the Harmon Award. James Solomon Russell died in Lawrenceville on March 28, 1935. He was buried at Saint Paul's cemetery. His son, Rev. J. Alvin Russell, continued to run the St. Paul College with his wife, Nellie Pratt Russell, and a Board of Trustees. His eldest daughter, Araminta, served as its registrar until she died in 1937.
Archdeacon Russell's autobiography, Adventure in Faith, was published in 1935. In 1995, the Diocese of Southern Virginia added James Solomon Russell to its liturgical commemorations of his death, which the General Convention later extended to the Episcopal Church. Lawrenceville, Virginia, a middle school, is named after the pioneering educator and missionary.