Russell was born into slavery in Mecklenburg County and was probably the only child of Solomon Russell and Araminta Russell. His father lived on a plantation across the border in neighboring Warren County, North Carolina, where the family reunited after the war. Late in 1867 they returned to Mecklenburg County, where Russell later worked for his tuition at a small private school. In 1873 he was appointed superintendent of ain the county. He enrolled in Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in 1874, but because he was needed on the family farm he withdrew in 1875. Russell received a teaching license in Warren County, where he taught school while continuing to work on the farm. He returned to Hampton in the fall of 1877 but was unable to complete the term because of financial difficulties and left again to teach in Warren County.
Russell attended the annual conferences of the Zion Union Apostolic Church (later Reformed Zion Union Apostolic Churches of America) in 1876 and 1878, serving as recording secretary for the former. He tried to steer the denomination toward a more orderly form of worship along the lines of the Episcopal Church. With the aid of Martha “Pattie” Hicks Buford, an Episcopalian educator who worked among Zion Union members in Brunswick County, he sought entrance into the Episcopal ministry. He was the first student at Saint Stephen’s Normal and Industrial School (later Bishop Payne Divinity School), in Petersburg. Russell attended from 1878 to 1882, studying the Old and New Testaments, church polity, and Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Throughout his studies he assisted Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church rector, led Sunday school, acted as church treasurer, and served on the vestry. Russell was ordained as a deacon in the Protestant Episcopal Church on March 9, 1882. On December 20, 1882, he married Virginia Michigan Morgan, the daughter of Peter George Morgan who had represented Petersburg in the Convention of 1867–1868 and in the House of Delegates from 1869 to 1871. They had two sons and four daughters, one of whom died in infancy.
MinistryRussell began his ministry in Lawrenceville on March 16, 1882, organizing a congregation that consisted of about twenty members. They met at Saint Andrew’s (a whites-only Episcopal church) every Sunday afternoon for Sunday school and the second and fourth Sundays each month for church services. At the May 1882 annual meeting of the Diocese of Virginia, a collection was taken to purchase a horse for Russell and funds were raised to help build a church for his new congregation. What became Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church was completed by February 1883. In January of that year Russell had begun a parish school for children. Realizing the intense desire of residents in the surrounding counties to learn to read and write, he founded Saint Paul Normal and Industrial School on September 24, 1888, in Lawrenceville. Though the school opened with fewer than a dozen students, he was convinced that it would succeed because he believed African Americans wanted their children to have the education and opportunities that they had been denied.
Saint Paul offered students a three-year curriculum featuring a variety of courses, including Bible study, U.S. history, penmanship, composition, English literature, geography, physics, and algebra. The school’s curriculum received criticism from some white people who were opposed to blacks receiving any higher education and also from some African Americans who perceived it demeaning to include, such as masonry and carpentry. In the 1889–1890 term Russell added an agriculture department.
Incorporated on March 4, 1890, Saint Paul’s enrollment reached 348 students for the 1894–1895 term, when summer school classes were offered. By 1900, the school had added to its industrial curriculum classes in blacksmithing, printing, shoemaking, farming, dressmaking, tailoring, and cooking. Russell advocated African American education and land ownership and helped organize the Saint Paul Farmers’ Conference in July 1905 as a catalyst for black economic improvement.
From the founding of the school until he was an old man, Russell traveled around the country and wrote letters to raise money for the institution, including from the businessmen and philanthropists John P. Morgan, Fred M. Kirby,, and the General Education Board founded by John D. Rockefeller. In 1888 Russell acquired the land where he wanted to construct Saint Paul’s first building and he continued to purchase additional property during the next decade. Financial instability threatened the institution, however, and the school had to borrow money several times using its land as collateral. By the end of 1898 Saint Paul was stable enough to purchase its main campus and an adjacent piece of land from Russell and his wife. In 1904 Saint Paul owned 1,700 acres and included about thirty buildings, many constructed by the students.
Early in the twentieth century, Saint Paul affiliated with American Church Institute for Negroes, which the Episcopal Church had established in 1906 to oversee the funding and management of some of its denominational colleges. The executive director disagreed with Russell’s management of the school and attempted to force his resignation, in part because of an arrangement benefiting Saint Paul by which many of its students were contracted to work for local white farmers and businessmen. The trustees of Saint Paul supported Russell and he retained control.
Enrollment at the school continued to increase and by 1917 Saint Paul employed more than forty teachers and instructors with a student body consisting of students from about twenty states, as well as from the Caribbean and Africa. In 1922 the school established a collegiate department to train teachers, with coursework including teaching methods, arithmetic, music, physical education, and civics, which was accredited by the State Board of Education in 1926. A junior college program, which included classes in advanced rhetoric, education psychology, sociology, and literature, began in 1929.
Russell maintained a high profile in the Episcopal Church, which experienced internal conflict about its treatment of African American clergymen. He was ordained a priest on February 9, 1887. Two years later he joinedand other black ministers in protesting an amendment to the diocesan constitution that limited the participation of black clergymen in the governing council. The church in Virginia established a separate convocation for African Americans and on October 11, 1893, Russell was appointed the first Archdeacon of Colored Work in the nascent Diocese of Southern Virginia.
Russell traveled around the diocese, which until 1919 encompassed the southern part of the state from the Atlantic to Kentucky, ministering to mission churches and supporting the establishment of new churches by African Americans. He regularly urged the council to provide more funds and additional African American clergymen for the increasing number of congregations. In 1933 Russell unsuccessfully petitioned the diocese to remove references to race from its constitution and canons to allow full representation for all clergy.
In June 1917 Russell received an honorary doctorate of divinity from the Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary in Virginia, and in 1922 he received an honorary doctorate of law from Monrovia College, in Liberia. Elected suffragan bishop of the Diocese of Arkansas in 1917 and offered the position of suffragan bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina in 1918, he declined both, stating that his work as head of Saint Paul was too important. At a campus ceremony on February 12, 1929, Russell received the 1928 Harmon Foundation’s gold medal for his achievements in religious and educational work among African Americans.
Russell desired to retire in 1928 because of his age, but the board refused to accept his resignation until December 13, 1929. At that time Saint Paul had almost 800 students, more than fifty staff members, and thirty-six buildings. His son, James Alvin Russell, succeeded him as principal. Russell died of myocarditis in Lawrenceville on March 28, 1935, and was buried next to his wife, who had died on July 2, 1920, in Saint Paul’s cemetery located near the school (later Saint Paul’s Memorial Chapel Cemetery). In October 1996 Russell was designated a local saint for the Diocese of Southern Virginia.