With Smithsonian’s help, St. Paul’s is recorded, remembered
by Steven Johnson, Staff Writer
It took a community to build a college. And it will take a community to preserve it.
That is the lesson of a partnership between the Smithsonian Institution, state and local agencies, and volunteers in Lawrenceville, Va., who are sorting through the vestiges of St. Paul’s College, a historically Black school that operated for 125 years until it succumbed to financial pressures in 2013.
Through community workshops, friends and alumni of St. Paul’s are learning proper archiving techniques to pass on to other trainees and keep the heart of the small, but beloved, school beating in some way.
“We love the memories, but we also want to see the pictures, we want to see the diplomas, we want to honor the love and the passion that the founders and the students had,” says Dorothea K. Williams, program manager at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. “The schools built to educate African Americans serve as a source of pride and developed people who went on to do wonderful things. That cannot be lost.”
As a result, volunteers work diligently in a Brunswick County office building, inspecting one item at a time, lifting slides to a light to inspect for images, poring over dated academic records, logging the details of dated photographs and trying to figure out why a cache of sports trophies sits in a box instead of on some athlete’s mantel.
“To have the Smithsonian show its interest from a national scale for rural Brunswick County; it’s like a dream come true,” says County Administrator Leslie H. Waddington. “So, unfortunate as it is that St. Paul’s is closed, some good does come out of it.”
The reclamation of St. Paul’s College might not have been possible without Bobby Conner’s Dodge Neon. Conner was working at the county tourism office in June 2013 when the school, which had dwindled from 800 students to around 150, locked its doors for good.
Hoping to preserve some of St. Paul’s memorabilia, Conner, County Supervisor Bernard L. Jones Sr., and others loaded the Neon, trip after trip, with holdings they hauled from the school before they could deteriorate in unattended buildings or be tossed by a new landlord.
“There was no order to it. It was like everyone left on a Friday and just didn’t come back. It was ripe for mass disposal,” Conner says.
The rescue team thought about developing a museum to promote tourism, even as a citizens group sought to raise the profile of James Solomon Russell, a pastor and educator born into slavery, who founded St. Paul’s in 1888 with donated funds.
The groups combined their efforts. The result: the 10-room James Solomon Russell-St. Paul’s College Museum and Archives, which traces Russell’s career from his first church in Palmer Springs, Va., to the development of the college.
James Grimstead, a 1958 graduate of James Solomon Russell High School in Lawrenceville, serves as director/chairman. Conner is vice chairman.
“We recognize James Solomon Russell because he was a master pioneer,” Grimstead says, noting St. Paul’s students built many of the buildings in town. “The purpose of his school was to bring farmers into school to learn trades, become teachers and use their minds to take care of the needs of the communities.”
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
For Dr. Barbara Jarrett Harris, homecoming was a special time at St. Paul’s because it wasn’t just college kids dressing up for the big game. She is an expert on the subject; the retired school principal went to St. Paul’s, as did her four siblings.
“Brunswick County misses that, even now, because when it was homecoming in Brunswick County, with a small college, it was everybody’s homecoming,” says Jarrett Harris, a county supervisor. “St. Paul’s College was one of the major footprints that made a magnificent difference in Brunswick County.”
The archiving project, then, continues homecoming, in a slightly different way. In the chain of command, Smithsonian archivists learned from a team led by Mona Jimenez, a former New York University professor and an originator of the community archiving workshop concept.
Smithsonian representatives go into communities like Lawrenceville and train volunteers, who school additional recruits to catalog disorderly collections, with an emphasis on recovering data from floppy disks, CD-ROMs and audio cassettes left untouched for years. “Especially with magnetic media, eventually the signal will just go away. It’ll just be a piece of plastic,” says A.J. Lawrence, a media conservationist with the Smithsonian.
The closure of St. Paul’s did more than disrupt education for a small student population. It left a 183-acre hole in Lawrenceville, a town of 1,500 that built up around the college.
“When you think about the amount of people who went downtown every day to shop, we lost a lot of people that either attended school or were in the area to work here,” says County Supervisor Alonzo Seward, another St. Paul’s alum. “All that traffic, we lost in downtown Lawrenceville, which hurt the local economy.”
Whether developers will ever see value in the property is problematic. So Tim Roberts, community outreach coordinator with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, says the St. Paul’s of the future will require a different vision.
“It’s a hot time for history because you have so many tools to be able to tell these stories in a different way and reach so many more people,” he says. “Even though a building may be lost, we can incorporate a 3-D model that can be experienced in a certain way or shared across the internet.”
No matter the medium, Gloria Menyweather Woods, who attended St. Paul’s in the 1960s on a $500 scholarship, believes its digital reawakening is true to the goals and ideals of its founder.
“This means the world to me because I have a passion to see that James Solomon Russell’s legacy and St. Paul’s College’s legacy are secure,” she says. “I think he had a special calling in his life. I think it was the Lord surrounding him and guiding him and being with him that got St. Paul’s started. I feel that presence now, sometimes, in the work that we do.”
For more, visit jsrussell.org.