On the surface, Lawrenceville, Virginia, looks like many other small rural towns struggling in the wake of economic and social globalization. With a population that has declined more than 29% since 2010 and fast-diminishing employment opportunities in its principal industries, the community is certainly distressed. However, the abandonment manifest in a boarded-up downtown obscures a complex and nuanced past and present.
The story of Lawrenceville, situated in Brunswick County, one of 104 majority-Black counties in the United States, cannot be told without reference to St. Paul’s College, a historically Black liberal arts college that closed in 2013. As organizations across the country have increasingly worked in recent years to preserve Black geographies, a group of St. Paul’s alumni, St. Paul’s College 4 Life (SPC4Life), is seeking to move beyond preservation to reimagine the space and place of their alma mater in its struggling community. Two of the authors have been privileged to observe and support this effort in various capacities since the Fall of 2022, while one has helped to lead it.
We argue that St. Paul’s College 4 Life is evidencing Black radical imagination within a “forgotten space,” a small and declining rural community. We also contend that the sense of communitas generated among the alumni involved through attending St. Paul’s has been foundational in their effort. We illustrate these arguments by describing briefly how these individuals have engaged in envisioning a fresh role for their college.
Communitas and radically reimagining a “forgotten place”
Kelley (2022) has argued that “the map to a new world is in the imagination” and suggested that Black social movements have a long history of spurring radical social change in response to oppression (p. 2). He has defined the Black radical imagination as the capacity of Black-led movements to dream of a different future through “the emancipation of thought” and contended that surrealists, anti-colonial activists, Black feminists, and many other Black-led movements have been borne of this robust tradition (p. 4). St. Paul’s College emerged from such thinking in 1888 during the ferment of Reconstruction.
Even as neoliberalism, racism, and racial resentment hobble imaginative capacity among many individuals and communities in the United States today, the Black radical imagination is nonetheless alive in Lawrenceville in SPC4Life. Gilmore (2008) has described communities such as Lawrenceville, which have “experienced the abandonment characteristic of contemporary capitalist and neoliberal state reorganization,” as “forgotten places” (p. 31). Further, she has argued that people in such locations, while seeking to reclaim space, must also “act within the institutional and individualized constraints defined by racialization, gender hierarchy, and nationality” existing in each (p. 36).
Confronting these conditions, the St. Paul’s College 4 Life project has embraced an openness to possibilities (and people), inclusion, and transparency as guiding premises. In our view, this could not have occurred without what Favors has dubbed the communitas shared by core participants in the initiative generated by their experience at St. Paul’s (Favors 2019). Favors has argued that communitas emerged among students at HBCUs based on the relationships they developed through “the tradition and ritual of embracing their social responsibilities,” which he has described as much deeper than those generated by other higher education institutions because HBCUs embraced a “second curriculum” composed “of a pedagogy of hope grounded in idealism, race consciousness, and cultural nationalism” (ibid., pp. 5–6). The relationships built on this foundation have been key to the capacity of St. Paul’s College 4 Life members capacity to make collective decisions. While the ambitious vision of reimagining their former school and a specific continuing focus on securing unity have helped keep the group together, the resilience of their personal relationships, grounded in shared experience, has been key as members have addressed significant conflicts concerning direction and decision processes. As we write, SPC4Life continues to work through these disagreements as they arise and as they collectively pursue the shared goal of finding fresh ways to serve the educational needs of the community of which they were once an integral, if often underacknowledged, part.
Former slave and Black Episcopal priest James Solomon Russell arrived in Lawrenceville in 1882 and founded what would become St. Paul’s College in 1888 as St. Paul’s Normal and Industrial School. The new entity focused on the trades in its early years and began to provide teacher training in the 1920s. The College began offering baccalaureate degrees in the 1940s and soon became a vital source of Black educators, many of whom still serve in Virginia’s school systems today.
Reproduced with the permission of St. Paul’s College 4 Life.
As with many other HBCUs, however, resources were always lean, even with support from the Episcopal Church. Against this backdrop and after financially struggling for years, the college closed in 2013. Lawrenceville and its area have since languished without their primary anchor institution.
A group of alumni formed St. Paul’s College 4 Life in 2020 with the aim of improving the educational and economic opportunities available to local residents, especially the area’s Black youth and young adults. The group’s original vision included reopening the campus and providing new programming alongside a companion revitalization of downtown Lawrenceville. Accordingly, the alumni investigated opportunities in locally untapped markets, including leadership development and data management. The group’s vision has consistently been rooted in providing potentially transformative educational curricula for its targeted participants. In keeping with Russell’s original vision, SPC4Life members initially conceived of their effort as workforce development while simultaneously continuing to envision more traditional academic programming for the future. With this in mind, SPC4Life is currently exploring accreditation options for its offerings with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.
Soon after the group’s incorporation, however, the ground shifted beneath it when the foreign firm that now owns the campus announced its possible sale to another entity in 2021. This forced members to rethink their aims. They did so and purchased a former bank in Lawrenceville adjacent to the college campus to house their operations and nascent programming. As we write, SPC4Life is considering at least three potential education programs to be housed in the building and is already providing a leadership development program for high school youth at that location.
The new prospective initiatives include a re-entry curriculum now being piloted in partnership with one of the several state prisons located nearby, a curriculum designed to equip individuals with the knowledge necessary to launch new businesses, and a pharmacy tech training program developed in partnership with a major pharmaceutical firm located in the region. In each case, the group has sought to build something new, drawing on its unique collective experience. They have sought, for example, to imagine something other than standard workforce and re-entry programs, which continue to struggle with low success rates and have often failed Black communities. As Kelley (2022) has suggested, the Black Radical Imagination has often addressed situations like that in Lawrenceville, where traditional pathways have failed to produce meaningful social change.
While they have not yet firmly settled on how best to serve their targeted population, the vulnerable young people of the Lawrenceville region, they continue actively to imagine possibilities to do so while recognizing that realization of their programmatic and community aspirations will take many years, just as it took decades for Russell’s educational vision to bear fruit. Indeed, while the goals of any individual initiative may not be immediately attainable, the group’s members are nonetheless dreaming of community transformation. The communitas these individuals developed during their shared educational experience has been critical to facilitating their capacity for sustaining the collective process of envisioning and the patience required to persevere in its pursuit.
Communitas and the group’s radical imagination can be seen clearly in its explicit, and regularly repeated, central values of transparency, humility, and unity “with forgiveness in the spirit of love” (Chris Stephenson, presentation to the author, Feb 4, 2023). In furtherance of these values, the organization, while fulfilling its legal requirements as a nonprofit entity, eschewed a traditional understanding of board leadership for the first several years of its existence in favor of a more inclusive governance strategy. This included regular “general body meetings,” reminiscent of Quaker gatherings, to which all alumni/supporters were invited and during which all operating organizational concerns were discussed. That body has been served by an operating structure that has included more than thirty individuals serving on twelve different committees. While this mode of proceeding has slowed programmatic development and been the locus of sometimes intense internal debates, it has also been fundamental to developing trust among members and thereby has contributed to helping to develop a more representative and resilient organization.
Withal, members have had to work hard to imagine new possibilities in a region of Virginia in which the socioeconomic vestiges of “Massive Resistance” are still prominent, although rarely acknowledged, and whose economy is now driven by multiple prisons (Lassiter and Lewis 1998). Despite this environment of continued struggle, SPC4Life has not shied away from thinking big. Members are presently exploring creating a “think tank” to foster more imaginative thinking in the area. The group has also investigated how, were the campus to become available for purchase, a Black-led retreat and learning center, similar to the Chautauqua Institution, might catalyze learning opportunities locally and across the region.
Lawrenceville’s mayor and several local prison leaders, as well as the area’s Episcopal bishop, have become strong advocates, while other potentially helpful groups and elected leaders, including some county and state actors, continue to track the group’s progress with a certain wariness. As we write, the project’s leaders, including one of the authors of this article, continue to build relationships with college alumni and an array of potential partners, including national foundation representatives, to conceive, and build, paths forward. Reimagining a space that long served as a vital rural Black geography and source and locus of communitas amid an ongoing economic decline in a now increasingly forgotten place characterized by continued class and racial segregation demands disciplined adaptive leadership, hard thinking, and, above all, resourcefulness.
It is not clear what the future holds for St. Paul’s College 4 Life as its members challenge the social and economic forces now defining Lawrenceville and its environs. Nonetheless, it seems clear that the entity’s leaders have been animated by a shared belief that new futures can be imagined and thoughtfully nurtured in forgotten spaces. As Gilmore (2008) has observed, “the awareness of imminent and ineluctable change that comes with abandonment in new ways and at new scales, opens up the possibility for people to organize themselves at novel resolutions” (p. 36). In much the same way that Russell conceived a future for the Black population of southern Virginia during Reconstruction, SPC4Life is today working to catalyze collective action and open possibilities for the vulnerable citizens of their former college’s region. As we write, that animating force is rooted in the shared community and collective responsibility nurtured in these alumni by an institution to which they remain devoted.
- Favors, J. M. 2019. Shelter in a Time of Storm: How Black Colleges Fostered Generations of Leadership and Activism, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Gilmore, R. W. 2008. “Forgotten places and the seeds of grassroots planning”, in C. Hale (ed.), Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship, Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 31–61.
- Kelley, R. D. 2022. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, Boston: Beacon Press.
- Lassiter, M. D. and Lewis, A. B. (eds.). 1998. The Moderates’ Dilemma: Massive Resistance to School Desegregation in Virginia, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.