The Crusader Newspaper Group

Her grandfather was born a slave. Almost 200 years later, she visited the HBCU he built.

By Julia Carpenter,

William Hooper Councill was once standing on the slave auction block in Hunstville, Ala. But by his death in the late 1800s, he was a free man, owned a plot of land and founded Alabama A&M, a historically black college, in the same town where he was once a slave.

Debra Clark-Russell, Councill’s great-great-granddaughter, submitted a photo of her first visit to campus to Historically Black, The Washington Post Tumblr project. She heard of Councill’s work from family stories, and several of her relatives were guests on the campus and even acted as student ambassadors for prospective black youth in the early 1970s. But Clark-Russell had never stepped foot on the land that was his life’s work. At age 49, she visited the Alabama A&M campus with her two children for the first time.

“When I got to the campus, we were just swooped up by university officials and stuff,” she says. “They let one of the historians — he was well-knowledgeable about a ton of things — show us around the streets and facilities named after us. And he took me to the well where my grandfather had built and dug the well … of course, I drank from that well — I just had to touch, I had to walk, I had to breathe in and take in everything.”

Every corner of campus reminded Clark-Russell of the story she had heard growing up — Councill’s time as a slave, being sold two or three times when he was only three years old, being separated from his parents and enduring extreme physical labor.

“It just made me cry for the baby that was by himself,” she says. “My children both had been 5. I know their strengths and their fears. As a mom, what happened to him — it made me have compassion for him.”

Councill founded Alabama A&M during Reconstruction, a period when many white Americans still objected to the idea that black people could pursue an education. Alabama A&M was one of a dozen historically black colleges established in this time period. It followed Lincoln University and Cheyney University, and in the same decade contemporary Booker T. Washington’s famous Tuskeegee Institute laid the foundation for today’s strong and powerful HBCU campus culture.

Growing up with these stories of Councill’s work and his legacy, Clark-Russell promised herself that she would one day visit the campus.


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