Around the time of the Civil War, it was estimated that only 10% of the people of African descent living in the United States could read. Araminta Russell was determined that her son James Solomon would be one of them. James was born on the Hendrick plantation in Mecklenburg County, Virginia in 1857. At that time, James, nor his parents or anyone in his extended family were considered citizens of the United States because the 1846 Supreme Court ruling (Dred Scott v Sanford) was still in effect. In this ruling, enslaved people were not citizens and could not expect any protection from the federal government or the courts. The court concluded that "beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." Following the Civil War, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments of the Constitution were passed in which Slavery was abolished (1865). With the stroke of a pen, James and all his relatives not only became citizens with equal protections under the law (1868) but were also guaranteed the right to vote (1870). During the short-lived period of American racial reconciliation, Reconstruction (1866-1877), Araminta was probably unaware of the Black legislators attending session in Washington DC. She and husband Solomon Russell, now newly emancipated, were too busy trying to survive as subsistence farmers in southeastern Virginia. James, along with his siblings were needed to help on the farm. However, Araminta was determined. She sacrificed to send James Solomon to school whenever possible and encouraged him to become educated. She wanted him to become a preacher and so she went so far as to send him to Sunday School in a white church in Palmer Springs, VA. It was there that James Solomon’s intellect was noticed by the superintendent, John E.P. Wright who suggested that he attend college. In the fall of 1874, James Solomon left for the Hampton Normal and Industrial Institute that had been established just 6 years earlier. He carried with him $22 along with a burning desire to become a preacher. James Solomon repeatedly had his education interrupted due to his inability to pay the fees but his faith continued to increase. While back in Palmer Springs, he had come across The Book of Common Prayer and decided then to become a priest in the Episcopal Church. That dream was partially realized when he was made an archdeacon in 1882. The Episcopal church accommodated his calling by creating an entire seminary for their sole Black student in Petersburg, VA. In Petersburg, James Solomon received special help and tutelage from Rev. Giles Buckner Cooke. Cooke, a former Confederate major had dedicated his life to the education of the formally enslaved once the war ended. He took James Solomon under his wing.
In the years during which James Solomon Russell prepared for the ministry, being mentored by Rev. Cooke, the 15th Amendment was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in a series of roll backs known as the Civil Rights Cases, 1883. These rulings concluded that segregation by race was not covered by the Amendments. With this ruling, the ground was laid for Plessy v Fergusson (1896) which legalized Separate but Equal public accommodations. It is unlikely that James Solomon Russell ever read the Court's ruling. So, he probably didn't know that the Court’s one dissenter, Justice John Marshall Harlan pointed out a contradiction in the reasoning of his colleagues. He even opined that Chinese Americans could ride in the same train car as whites in Louisiana, whereas, Blacks could not despite having fought for the preservation of the Union. Justice Harlan wrote passionately in his dissent about the "color-blindness of the law"
In the view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights are guaranteed as long the law of the land are guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved. However, this statement was immediately followed by, The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time, if it remains true to its great heritage and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty
James Solomon Russell, having been born into slavery, and having realized the limitations of his educational opportunities and then having been provided an entirely separate training for the ministry because of his race, probably would agree with the color-blind aspirations of Justice Harlan's first statement. However, Russell’s life experience would enable him to recognize the prevalence of the white-supremacist reflected in the later statement. It is therefore, not surprising that Rev. James Solomon Russell, the son of Araminta Russell, rose from enslavement and with the help of a former Confederate officer among others, became an Arch Deacon in the Episcopal Church. Then, he used his position as a preacher to create a school. Rev. James Solomon Russell founded Saint Paul Normal and Industrial School in Lawrenceville, Virginia in 1888. The entering class had twelve students. The school was formed chiefly to develop African American teachers and was situated in a part of rural Virginia populated by an estimated 100,000 Black people across several counties. In 1941 the school became Saint Paul's Polytechnic Institute and in 1944 offered its first bachelor's degree. The school became St. Paul's college in In 1957. This time span of nearly 70 years, between St, Paul's founding, and its peak, included the period in which the Supreme Court reversed the “Separate but Equal” ruling in Brown v Topeka Board of Education, 1954. This ruling also called for the desegregation of pubic school and provided a legal and also a moral foundation to the civil rights movement.
Rev. James Solomon Russell, served as the president of St. Paul's college until his death. For all of the time he served, he saw his work at St. Paul's not as a job but as his ministry. He wrote about this in 1918 when he declined a higher position in the Episcopal Church because it would have required leaving Virginia. 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. 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. When James Solomon Russell died in 1935, the Norfolk Gazette reported 3000 attendees at his funeral. Both his son, Rev. Dr. J. Alvin Russell, Sr. and grandson Dr. J. Alvin Russell, Jr. would later serve as president of the university he founded. In fact, his grandson, also developed a four-year program in electronics engineering at Hampton University, the very place that gave Rev. Russell his start. During those ensuing years tremendous strides were made in ensuring an equal education for African Americans. One of the policy initiatives in place during the time when Rev. Russell's grandson was at the helm of St. Paul's College was Affirmative Action. President Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925 (1961), established the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity (CEEO) and it ensured that federal contractors did not discriminate based on race, color, religion, or national origin. Then there was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which contained provisions prohibiting discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. This legislation expanded the scope of affirmative action efforts. Follwed by President Johnson’s Executive Order 11246 (1965) requiring federal contractors to use affirmative action to ensure equal employment opportunity for underrepresented groups. The Supreme Court ruled that the use of Affirmative Action provided social benefit and upheld challenges to the law in the University of California v. Bakke (1978) case, where it stated that race could be considered as one factor among others in college admissions. The law was also upheld again in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) which found that the University of Michigan's Law School's use of Affirmative Action to uphold goals of achieving diversity in higher education was constitutional. Last week, the Supreme Court reversed its position on Affirmative Action in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College (2023). No one at St. Paul's College was around to see this latest development because St. Paul's college closed in 2017. There are now 104 Historically Black Colleges/Universities that remain to usher in this newest chapter...and what a chapter it will be. More musings next time….I am still processing.