James D. Russell: 1921-2011

Russell memorial

A funeral service for James D. Russell is planned for 10 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 22, at Hopewell Baptist Church in Sperryville. The family also is planning a musical tribute to Mr. Russell by his son Mike Russell, of Berlin, Germany, who is leader of a band called Black Heritage. Details of the musical tribute, open to the public, are still being arranged, possibly for the afternoon of Jan. 22 at a location yet to be decided. The Rappahannock News will report final plans for the musical tribute and burial arrangements when they become available.

For James D. Russell, who died Jan. 5 at his home in Sperryville, life was an upward journey of nearly 90 years.

He was born in 1921 in a small frame home at the bottom of Woodward Road just off Main Street in Sperryville. He died within two miles of there — at the top of Woodward Road in the hilltop home he called Pleasant View Acres. His life’s arc was upward, both literally and figuratively. In his long uphill climb against the odds, he rose above poverty, discrimination and the resentments they bred, to arrive at a higher ground in the last, contented years of his life.

He was the great-grandson of a slave — a fact that would open a path to a new status as historian, author and master storyteller — who remembered growing up in Rappahannock County in the days of racial segregation. He was, over his nine decades of life, a young boy attending segregated schools for black children, a World War II soldier in an all-black unit of the U.S. Army, a civilian government worker in Washington, D.C., and a retiree who returned to his home village to become something of a local celebrity, a respected community elder, and a restless visionary.

Russell in 2007 atop The Resting Rock, the place near his home where he would go to be near the spirits of his ancestors. He died not far from this place on Jan. 5. Photo by E. Raymond Boc.

James Daniel Russell was unknown to me until a day about a decade ago when this elderly black man quietly entered the Old Sperryville Bookshop (which my wife Joan and I then operated in the village) and laid upon my desk a big manila envelope containing a manuscript. “Would you read this and tell me if it possibly could be published as a book?” he asked. Despite my initial skepticism, I promised I would read it.

The manuscript was the basis for Russell’s first book — “Beyond the Rim: From Slavery to Redemption in Rappahannock County, Virginia.” It was the amazing true-life story of Russell’s great-grandmother, Sister Caroline Terry, who served as a slave on Rappahannock and Culpeper county plantations and lived to age 108. In her last years, she told her stories of slavery days, the Civil War and life after emancipation to her young great-grandson James, who often stayed with her before she died in 1941.

Russell thus became one of the few people living in this era who had heard a slave tell her own life story. “I touched the hand of history. I listened to those stories in person,” he told The Washington Post in an interview profile in 2006 after the book was published. Russell, who had an exceptional memory for names, places and detail, nurtured those stories for nearly half a century before committing them to paper in a writing style that blended history with humor, black culture and vivid imagery.

Russell sits by the old church window in the former Old Sperryville Bookshop, paging through the family Bible that was owned by Caroline Terry, his great-grandmother. Photo by James P. Gannon.

He was not a polished writer but he was a master storyteller. I worked with him as his editor, publisher and publicist for that first book, learning not only a great slice of untold Rappahannock County history, but a great deal about his own life, his attitudes, and his outlook. He went on to write two more books based on local legend, incidents of history and his own vivid imagination, which included conversations with ghosts of his ancestors, whom he dubbed The Silent Fraternity.

As a published author, he became an accomplished public speaker, appearing at many book-signings, including an appearance at the Barnes & Noble store in Charlottesville that attracted about 200 persons — their largest author appearance in years. He spoke to historical societies, black history events, museums, schools and others. He expressed some amazement to me privately after he spoke before the Rappahannock County Lions Club, astonished that an old black man would receive a standing ovation from what he considered the elite white establishment of the county.

He always remained rooted in that early life he lived in another era. He attended seven years of grade school in what was known as the Sperryville Colored School, where young blacks used the hand-me-down books discarded from the white schools. There was no high school in Rappahannock County for blacks, so he attended Manassas Industrial School, a trade-school for African-American youths, where he boarded.

He valued education. His father, H.R. Russell, was a school teacher for 33 years, and taught his son not only his academic subjects but some of life’s great lessons.

In an interview about his life, James said his experiences as a child in a segregated and prejudiced society left him feeling “alienated” and “outcast.” His parents and teachers, he said, “dealt with that by teaching us to become the best. . . . Learn, absorb, and demonstrate that you are capable, as capable as the other person. Don’t ever think that because of your racial background that you are not capable as a human being, or as other persons. . . . Just because the back of the bus was your lot, it still didn’t mean that you were inferior.”

James Russell sits and talks with James Gannon, the editor and writer who helped Russell get his first book written and published a decade ago, at the Rappahannock Library. Photo by E. Raymond Boc.

He served in a combat-support unit of all-black soldiers in World War II, part of that time in Italy, though he later expressed resentment that the U.S. Army apparently did not consider him and his black comrades fit for combat. After the war, he was employed in Washington, D.C., for eight years at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and for 25 years with the Postal Service. He retired in 1980 and came home to Sperryville.

In many ways, it seemed he had saved the best part of his life for the last. He was a visionary with an itch to make things happen. In the 1980s, he and a partner developed a restaurant on U.S. 211 west of Sperryville. He bought the acreage and house on the hill above his birthplace, and dreamed of developing Pleasant Acres. He built a garden railroad there, and dreamed of starting a museum of old Rappahannock history and artifacts. He was always thinking about his next project.

In it all, he remained an optimist — a man with a smile and a thousand stories, and a vision of things he would do next. His climb in life was always uphill, against the odds, but he was able to look back with satisfaction, good humor and forgiveness from his high perch on Pleasant View Acres. He was that odd combination of a man who was humble but yet proud.

He died about four months short of his 90th birthday, very near the spot he called The Resting Rock, which he made the title of his second book. That is where he imagined his conversations with ghosts of his ancestors, the Silent Fraternity that whispered their stories to him. It is his Resting Rock now, and if I know James, he has the Silent Fraternity listening and laughing to the tales of his times.

About James P. Gannon 21 Articles

James P. Gannon is a retired journalist who lives near Flint Hill. In his newspaper career, he served as a reporter and bureau chief at The Wall Street Journal, as Editor of The Des Moines Register in Iowa, and as Washington Bureau Chief for the Detroit news and a columnist for the Gannett newspapers.

2 Comments

  1. This gentleman did indeed “touch the hand of history.” His great-grandmother was wise enough to pass down stories from her past. Mr. Russell was wiser still by choosing to record those stories. What a treasure!

  2. This is a wonderfully written tribute to a very fine and gentle man. Mr. Russell set a fine
    example for us all, and he will be missed. But his stories live on through his books. Good
    job, Jim Gannon.

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