St. Stephen’s Church Petersburg

Organized in 1867, It is the second oldest Black Church in Virginia but the oldest in the Diocese of Southern Virginia. St. Philip’s, Richmond, is the oldest black church in Virginia and was founded in 1861. Prior to the Civil War, black Episcopalians worshipped at Grace Church and St.Paul’s Church in Petersburg. Alexander Weddell at Grace began a Sunday school for blacks in 1865, and Major Giles Cooke began one at St. Paul’s in 1867. These two groups were the base that became St. Stephen’s.  The church began meeting in Stringfellow Chapel, a former army hospital that was destroyed by fire during the first year of use by St. Stephen’s. With the help of many friends and the Freedmen’s Bureau, St. Stephen’s obtained a site and built a church on Perry Street, which was consecrated in 1868. The property was sold in 1912 to the British American Tobacco Company, and the current church was built on Halifax Street. A restoration program began in 1986.

Bishop Payne Divinity School

Major Giles Cooke Parochial school was established at St. Stephen’s and it was here that the Bishop Payne Divinity School was established.  When James Solomon Russell applied to Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS), Bishop Whittle (the Bishop of Virginia) made the decision to set up a satelite school of the seminary at St. Stephen’s Normal School. He knew he could not admit a black student to VTS at that time, but he wanted to support the training of black ministers. The satellite campus opened in 1878, and Russell was its first student. There was one professor, Rev. Thomas Spencer. Soon, more students enrolled, and two additional professors joined the faculty. Many of the students came from other countries, especially the West Indies. In 1884, the institution was recognized by the Virginia Assembly as a separate institution to be known as the Bishop Payne Divinity and Industrial School. Bishop Payne was a graduate of VTS and the first Bishop of Liberia. Initially, all the professors and trustees were white. The first black professor came in 1894. In 1910, the Industrial designation was dropped from the name, and it was granted permission to confer Bachelor of Divinity degrees by the Commonwealth. It continued to have financial difficulties, but Bishop Whittle kept it open. It was the only black seminary for the Episcopal Church in the United States and, at one point, had supplied more than a third of all black clergy in the United States as well as many overseas. It closed in 1949 and was merged back into VTS. All records were transferred and are in the archives at VTS. The transfer of all materials was completed by 1953, and VTS named its library the Bishop Payne Library to honor the Bishop Payne Divinity School memory and heritage.

Rev James Solomon Russell

Born in 1857, James Solomon Russell was the son of slaves. His mother made sure he learned to read. He attended Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University). He became a teacher but felt called to become a minister in the Episcopal church.  Following his graduation and ordination in 1882 from Bishop Payne Divinity School, he returned to Lawrenceville where he served for 52 years. He was a champion for black Episcopalians. He established many black churches, encouraged black candidates for Holy Orders, raised funds to support ministry to blacks, and founded and supported St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville. In 1882, he attended his first Diocesan Council and Bishop Whittle praised the “colored work” that was being done.  The Council voted to provide him “a horse, bridle, and saddle” for his work (Raper and Jones, 1992). Russell became the first Archdeacon for Colored Work in the Diocese of Southern Virginia, the highest diocesan wide post held by an African American at that time. James Solomon Russell’s life and legacy were placed before the National Church at the 2009 General Convention and following ratification his name was placed on the Episcopal Church’s Liturgical calendar with his Saint day being March 28th

St. Paul’s College Lawrenceville

The St. Paul Normal and Industrial School was founded by James Solomon Russell in Lawrenceville in September 1888 with less than a dozen students. The main objective was to train African American teachers. In 1941 the state granted the school authority to offer a four-year program and the school was renamed St. Paul’s Polytechnic Institute. In 1957 the school became St Paul’s College reflecting the shift to a liberal arts curricula but still focused on teacher education. The college developed the “Single Parent Support System” in 1987 – the only such program in the US at the time. It was designed to help young single parents pursue a college education. Raising sufficient funds to support the college became more difficult. Following attempts to merge with another historically black college, St Paul’s closed in 2013.


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