By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
The 15 buildings that once administered, housed, and educated generations of Black Virginians fell silent in 2013.
Today what remains dormant is being watched over by various overseas and domestic investment firms.
Though the mission of the school may appear dead, the 125-year-old HBCU is alive and well in the form of a museum honoring its legacy and founder.
Shortly after the school was closed, Bobby Conner, part journalist and historian, sat down with Pete Stith, the last President of the school in 2013, and expressed his concerns about its future.
“I was deeply worried about what was going to happen to the history,” said Conner during a recent interview with the Guide. “So, after two hours of talking, Pete told me he would allow me to come on campus and remove anything valuable from the buildings.”
Stith told Conner that as soon as the sale of the college was final, the new owners would bar people from entering the campus.
For two years, once a week Conner said, he filled his small Dodge Neon with everything he could carry from the buildings of historic value.
He stored what he removed in a space in a county-owned building across from the Court House Square on Lawrenceville’s Main Street.
Eventually, he got help from a few school alumni, county employees, and other Brunswick County residents to export a ton of material.
A team of volunteers managed to organize all of that material into a facility named in honor of the college’s legacy and its founder – The James Solomon Russell – Saint Paul’s College Museum and Archives (JSR-SPCMA).
The museum opened first in a vacant bank building on Lawrenceville’s Main Street in 2018. It was a testament to the dedication of those involved.
The county bought the last facility that had been built on the Saint Paul’s Campus — the student center—and converted it into the Brunswick County Conference Center on Athletic Field Road near the shuttered HBCU.
Conner said the county then invited and helped export the holdings of the JSR-SPCMA to the site.
In 2019, Conner, James Grimstad, and over 300 supporters cut the ribbon on the JSR-SPCA.
According to Conner and Grimstead, the museum which is owned by the county sits apart from the main campus at 100 Athletic Field Road.
A 12-member Board of Directors which Grimstead chairs and Conner is the vice chair, orchestrated all those efforts and organized all of the material they had collected to be exhibited in the museum.
The museum houses pictures and other materials dating back to a time when there was only one structure originally called The Saul Building which began Saint Paul Normal and Industrial School in 1888.
Ledgers and books of financial activity, personnel, student attendance, yearbooks, huge poster-size prints of graduating classes, and athletic records and gear for sports teams are now on display.
Conner said that only 30 percent of the materials he managed to rescue during his salvage operation are now on display in the museum.
According to Conner and Grimstead, the JSR-SPCMA is now collaborating with the Smithsonian’s National African American Museum of History and Culture and the national Robert F. Smith Center for the Digitization and Curation of African American History.
Once the Smithsonian and the Smith Center complete current operations at sites in Chicago and New Orleans, they will move their operation to Lawrenceville to begin the effort to digitize most of the JSR-SPCMA’s holdings.
The Smith Center’s involvement with the Lawrenceville museum is part of its nationwide mission, using innovative technology, to preserve and share Black history, according to its website.
Addison Scurlock, who owned a photography studio in Washington, D.C., and Richmond starting in the early 1900s, took many images of the life of African Americans in those cities but also did a lot of photography work at Saint Paul’s College, starting in around 1903.
Many of those images and ones of faculty and students are a big portion of the photographic collection of the Russell Museum.
Grimstead and Conner both see the soul of Saint Paul’s resting not only with the materials and items now housed in the museum; but also, in the life of the school’s founder, Episcopalian Bishop James Solomon Russell, the founder, and first president.
The National Park Service has awarded JSR-SPCMA a $46,970 Underrepresented Community Grant to expand and update its historical records and documentation.
Conner and Grimstead applaud State Senator Louise Lucas and State Delegate Roslyn Tyler for securing state funding for restoration projects that included reframing all of the many large graduating class pictures in special frames to protect them.
All of these efforts and funds will allow the museum’s holdings and the school’s legacy to be shared with students and institutions globally, via the internet.
The museum just completed a strategic plan through a grant from Virginia Humanities to help guide efforts over the next 10 years. That work was guided through the museum’s consultants at Commonwealth Preservation in Norfolk, Virginia.
According to Conner and Grimstead, the museum’s holdings could soon be a hub for people tracing their ancestry and other historic research.
Efforts are now underway, with support from the Smith Center at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, to open a family history center.
That center will have computers set up for individuals to have access to many types of records. The Smith Center also plans to conduct workshops on family history research.
“One of our favorite exhibits now are the huge pictures of graduating classes,” said Conner. “People come in to see their grandparents or parents who have graduated from the school.”
According to Conner and Grimstead, the Museum Board started the Wall of Fame where at least five graduates, former faculty, teachers, or supporters of the school are honored at a program during the spring.
“These people were famous in several areas from education, to the sciences and other professions,” said Grimstead, who is an NSU graduate, but spent a good amount of time In Hampton Roads before moving back to Brunswick County recently.
After the Wall of Fame Class was recognized in 2019, the COVID pandemic shut it down the following year.
Grimstead said the program will be resumed and five others will be inducted.
“He is the founder and is one of the most important Black men in history,” said Grimstead about the college’s founder. “Few people knew who he was until after the
school closed and the museum opened. Now we want to continue to honor his legacy every year not only with the Wall of Fame but with artifacts in that museum.”
Conner noted that many of the nation’s Black political professionals from education to science were products of Saint Paul’s.
“His school trained many Black men and women to be educators, especially,” said Conner. “Once they received their training at Saint Paul’s the teachers returned to their communities and educated their people.”
“Whatever happens to what is left of Saint Paul’s,” Conners continued, “is the legacy of a vision; and the contributions to his people will be preserved in that museum.”