Elizabeth Henry Campbell Russell, 1825

by Leah Wilson

Elizabeth Henry Campbell Russell was a courageous woman who defied expectations. Born in Hanover County, Virginia, on July 10, 1749, Elizabeth “Betsy” Henry was a child of privilege whose family had access to power and prestige in Colonial Virginia.

In her two marriages, both to Revolutionary War leaders, her network of privilege broadened. When she was twenty-seven years old, she moved with her first husband to his estate at Seven Mile Ford, on the Middle Fork of the Holston. With prestige, lands, enslaved laborers, and financial resources she was at the pinnacle of Southwest Virginia society. Following the death of her second husband, Elizabeth Henry Campbell Russell possessed large holdings of land across several counties, including the manufacturing enterprises at the Saltworks, and a number of enslaved persons.

Under the influence of Francis Asbury, and going against the grain of her social circle, Mrs. Russell became a convert to Methodism. At the time, Methodism was dismissed among Virginia’s elite as the religion of common, uneducated people and derided because of its anti-slavery rules. Mrs. Russell took to heart Methodism’s foundational doctrines of anti-slavery and following a simple, unadorned lifestyle. For the remainder of her life, Mrs. Russell dressed plainly and simply, refusing to live in a large home. In 1795, she fully emancipated the enslaved persons over whom she had claimed sole ownership. The Virginia slave codes prohibited her from emancipating those enslaved persons in whom she held “a life estate.” She pushed the law to its limits, granting them freedom for as long as she lived. Many of the descendants of these people continue to live in Southwest Virginia. Since 1968, several have attended Emory & Henry College.

Elizabeth Henry Campbell Russell died on March 18, 1825. She had no direct influence on the founding of Emory & Henry, except as an example of one who has the courage of their convictions to defy popular expectations.

Mrs. Russell took to heart Methodism’s foundational doctrines of anti-slavery and following a simple, unadorned lifestyle. For the remainder of her life, Mrs. Russell dressed plainly and simply, refusing to live in a large home. In 1795, she fully emancipated the enslaved persons over whom she had claimed sole ownership.

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