Two weeks ago, I admitted to you that I was having a difficult time dealing with the Supreme Court's recent decision on Affirmative Action and its implications. My goal was to use this writing as a means of processing my thoughts but it hasn't been enough. Normally, when I have a big problem I go to my garden to hash things out. Digging in the dirt seems to help. So it seemed fitting for me to notice the weeds growing under the sign in front of my church, St. Stephens Episcopal Church in Petersburg, VA. The same St. Stephens where James Solomon Russell studied for the priesthood. You may recall that I wrote previously (1) about Father Russell and his founding of the now closed HBCU, St. Paul's College. It appears that after sitting with Father Russell, I needed time to contemplate and to pull up weeds and dig deep... and it helped. During this time of getting quiet, I realized that I was using the wrong approach. I'd been seeking to solve a heart problem with tools for the mind. In researching the Affirmative Action lawsuit's origin story, I examined the lineage of racialized jurisprudence in the United States since the Dred Scott case (1846). This was the case that determined enslaved people should not be considered citizens of the United States. I thought that knowing the gains from that time would help: through the reversal of Plessy vs. Ferguson's (1896) separate but equal verdict by Brown vs. Topeka, (1954); through to the Civil Rights Act (1964); all the way to the election of President Obama ( 2012 & 2016). I sought out the logic for concluding that there was no longer a need for Affirmative Action in higher education with the hope that this understanding would bring me peace. Unfortunately, none of this intellectualizing worked. Maybe it's because I know too much. I know about the K-shaped recovery of Covid-related learning loss (2) that suggests that some children may never fully recover from 12-18 months of not being in school. I know from the statistics that fewer students are attending college overall (2) at a time when preparation for the knowledge economy will depend on skills dependant upon thinking logically, critcially and with imagination (3). But more than what I know, it is also what I feel. It feels as if the true goal for a sizeable minority of people in this country is to turn back the clock and deny access to the American dream to Americans that don't look or believe or vote like them. When James Solomon Russell birthed the idea of an institution for higher learning there were very few educational opportunities for the children of the formerly enslaved. However, he realized that the economic survival of Black people was dependent upon them having access to knowledge. He knew that the best way to deliver that knowledge in 1888 was to create institutions for Black students with Black teachers run by Black administrators and located in an area of the country in which Black people lived. Father Solomon, looked out on the racial landscape of his day, recognized what he was dealing with and created a solution. The solution, in essence, was a racially segregated school in which the entire focus was on empowerment and upliftment. It was during this violent period of post-Reconstruction when the gains of freedom and citizenship for the formally enslaved were being purposefully and systematically rolled back that St. Paul's College stood out as an oasis of hope.
In his autobiography, Adventure in Faith, Father Russell gives the back story of his founding of St. Paul's College. The son of the formerly enslaved Araminta and Solomon, Russell rose to become an ordained Archdeacon in the Episcopal Church. In building St. Paul's College, Father Russell recounts the myriad challenges he faced to materialize an oasis out of the desert of abject poverty and rampant prejudice. Father Russell puts his work in terms of of his spiritual calling and that the founding of St. Paul's college was his personal destiny. Based on Father Russell's example, creating an oasis in a vast desert of historic systematic and structural racism requires a very deep well. Evidence of the depth and power of Father Russell's convictions came from many sources. One was his enduring and life-long friendship with former Confederate officer, Giles Buckner Cooke. Another example was the effect Father Russell had on other people. Among them was the local Commonwealth attorney for Virginia who praised Father Russell at a Founder's day celebration of St. Paul's College.
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 transmuted 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. He went on to add. The Archdeacon was deeply influenced by the type of training he received as a student at Hampton (University). 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 the 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 History has shown me that it really doesn't matter what this Supreme Court does because none of what they do is permanent. What is as far reaching with a longer legacy is living a life of purpose...living one's destiny...fulfilling one's purpose. This is not an intellectual pursuit but a deeply personal and deeply spiritual one. Father Russell has inspired me to consider that perhaps 2023 is my 1846 or my 1896. At this time, I can still vote and enter any restaurant or store but I do have concerns about the future...not for me but for my students. I wonder how they will contribute in the knowledge economy. I wonder if what I have given them is enough. I question whether I have contributed to them knowledge about what really matters. My inquiry continues.