When Debra Clark-Russell visited Alabama A&M in 2013, she took her two children along for the trip. Here, Clark-Russell and her daughter stand with Councill’s statue. (Photo courtesy of Debra Clark-Russell, illustration by Rachel Orr.)

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 set 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.

[Subscribe to the “Historically Black” podcast]

“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 3 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 in 1875 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 many historically black colleges established in this time period.

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

“God had to have had his hands on him to make it through that by himself,” she says. “I think this is the best story, better than anything I’ve heard before.”

During their 2013 visit, Clark-Russell and her children took a tour with current students and professors to learn more about what life is like for the students attending classes, now and over the decades. They took photos by Councill’s portrait and his statue at the center of the university. They even visited his tomb — Councill is buried on campus alongside his wife.

“It was so supernatural, and it was raining, and my son said, ‘You have the ugly cries,” Clark-Russell says. “It was so inspiring.”

You can hear hosts Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu talk more about William Hooper Councill on Historically Black, a podcast co-production between APM Reports and The Washington Post that tells the stories of people’s lived experiences of black history through the objects that evoke those connections.

Subscribe to Historically Black on iTunes, TuneIn, Spotify and wherever else you listen to podcasts.

See more objects that have been submitted to the project and share your own at historicallyblack.tumblr.com.


Episode 1: How WWII opened doors for one of the first black women at NASA

Episode 2: The Million Man March changed history — and it transformed this father’s life

Episode 3: A hunt for his slave ancestor’s original bill of sale unearthed a surprising history

Episode 4: He went searching for his roots and found the most popular black fiddler in 1920s Missouri

Episode 5: In photos of ordinary life, James Van Der Zee captured Harlem Renaissance glamour

Episode 6: What does it mean to be “black enough?” Three women explore their racial identities.

Episode 7: Her great-great-grandfather was born a slave. Almost 200 years later, she visited the HBCU he built.

Episode 8: Why it matters if pop culture tells black love stories