Sylvia’s Inspirations

I have spent my entire life surrounded by courageous, dedicated people and the stories of my brave ancestors. Advocacy, volunteerism, and public service are my heritage. Through their desire to positively impact their communities, they have inspired my candidacy in many ways: to continue the fight, to strive to do what is right, and to help those in need. These are the stories of my inspirations.

My Father: James P. Russell, Sr.

My father, James P. Russel, and my mother

My father, James P. Russel, and my mother

One of the main inspirations for my candidacy is my late father, James P. Russell, Sr., who was at the forefront of civil rights activism in Northern Virginia in the 1950s and ’60s. Despite facing violent threats from the Ku Klux Klan, my father’s motivation to fight for the rights of the African American community remained strong because he knew that we did not deserve to be treated like second-class citizens. Dad dedicated his adult life to supporting the African American community of Prince William County, but he also served the larger community in other ways. He worked to found the first library in Prince William County and established Action in Community Through Service (ACTS) in 1969, a non-profit organization that continues to assist those affected by homelessness, financial inequality, sexual assault, domestic violence, and suicide. Dad also ran for the Board of Supervisors of Prince William County in the early 1970s in order to bring his desire for positive change into office. His bravery in fighting for marginalized communities in the face of adversity, desire to serve his community, and determination to run for the Board of Supervisors has inspired me throughout my life and brings me to my candidacy. 

Upon returning to the United States after serving in the Army in WWII, my father and his brother fled their home state North Carolina to Virginia in order to escape a violent confrontation with the KKK. Nevertheless, Jim Crow laws were also still deeply entrenched in Virginia. Watching his children attend segregated schools in Virginia moved him to become a member of the PTA, through which he fought for the racial integration of our school system. My father was soon elected as the President of the Prince William County NAACP. Through his involvement in this chapter, he also assisted in putting together a smaller version of the March on Washington in 1958. My father continuously encouraged us to stand up for our rights. Later, he sued the Prince William County Public School system for the right of my four older siblings to attend the white schools, and he won.

Yet, my father’s fight for racial justice was not without dangerous consequences. One of the most memorable confrontations occurred after the decision in my father’s case against the Prince William County school system. Our house came under gunfire from the local chapter of the KKK. My father, with his forethought, had convinced someone to infiltrate the KKK, who helpfully provided him the information about a coming attack. Dad was able to chase away the KKK with his own guns. The U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy was immediately notified, and he sent U.S. Marshals to our door to protect us and help my father get the children out of the house to a safe place. My siblings were taken to my uncle in North Carolina. When the Klan heard about this, they burned a cross near my uncle’s home, and my father was once again forced to flee the North Carolina Klan.

My dad was, on most levels, just a down-to-earth, humble man. Although he was unsuccessful in his bid to become a Supervisor in Prince William County, he sparked my interest in public service with his candidacy. I wish to continue my father’s legacy of service here in Loudoun County. 

My Great Aunt: Bessie Mae Smith

Another one of my familial inspirations for my activism and candidacy is my great aunt, Bessie May Smith. Widely known as the “Empress of Blues,” my Aunt Bessie was a pioneer in the blues and soul genres of music in the 1920s and 30s. She was also one of the most visible LGTBQ+ women in the music industry during her time, singing of her love of both men and women. I continue in my Aunt Bessie’s tradition by fighting for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community in our school system and elsewhere. (I might also note that Frank Sinatra came to the Lorton Prison, where my father worked, because he wanted to shake the hand of someone related to Bessie Smith!)

My Siblings: Joyce, Cameron, Deborah and James P. (Jr.) Russell

Me and my siblings Nina, Debbie, Joyce, and Mona

Me and my siblings Nina, Debbie, Joyce, and Mona

This story would not be complete without my four older siblings, Joyce, Cameron, Debbie, and Jimmy. My oldest sister Joyce, for example, was one of the children who integrated the White House Easter Egg Roll in 1954. My siblings were also instrumental in integrating the Prince William County schools, but this was not done without hesitation. When Joyce, for example, wanted to drop out from her predominantly white school, Dad put her on the phone with A. Phillip Randolph. Mr. Randolph, a well known figure within the civil rights and labor movements, urged Joyce to stand strong in the face of harassment from her classmates—and she did. In 2009, Joyce published a book entitled A Blues Song of My Own about her experiences during this time.

Debbie as a stewardess for Delta Airlines

Debbie as a stewardess for Delta Airlines

Debbie was the first black cheerleader in her school, and my sister Nina was the first black homecoming queen. Debbie also became a stewardess for Delta Airlines in 1976, when they passed a policy allowing for African Americans to work as flight attendants. My sister was among the first class, once again breaking through society’s restraints. My siblings have always been profiles in courage for me. 

My Cousins: Elaine, Moselle, and Linda Russell

Like my other family members, my cousins Elaine, Moselle, and Linda Russell, fought valiantly for what they knew was right. Elaine and Moselle were involved in the march associated with the North Carolina Woolworth’s Lunch Counter Protest in 1960 with fellow student [the Rev.] Jesse Jackson. The actions in which my cousins were involved kindled a resistance movement that would challenge racial segregation throughout the South.

My cousin, Linda Russell, integrated the Alexandra Public Schools in 1963 with 62 others after at nine-year battle. According to the Alexandria City Public School system, only after federal legislation, political unrest and violent protests, a change of personnel on both the City Council and Alexandria’s School Board, and the hiring of a new superintendent could she and the other students attend a white public school.

My Great Grandparents: Ma and Pa Russell

My white paternal great-grandfather, Pa Russell, loved my black great-grandmother, Ma Russell, in the 1880’s. They married, had several children, and worked their own farm. When the KKK discovered this relationship, they set fire to my great grandparents’ home while my great-grandfather was away selling tobacco from his farm. He returned to find his home burned out and his wife and several of their children dead; my grandfather, who was only a toddler at the time, survived. Their courage, however, did not die in that blaze because other activists arose from their line, including all the above people I have discussed above.