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'Something Must Be Done about Prince Edward County' tells a horrific story of racism and US public schools

A reporter born and bred in Virginia looks back on the racially divided schools of her childhood and asks: "What was wrong with my hometown?"

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    Something Must Be Done about Prince Edward County:
    A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle
    By Kristen Green
    Harper
    322 pp.
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Robert Francis Kennedy, commonly known as Bobby, gave a speech in Louisville, Kentucky, back in 1963. He was at that time the attorney general of the United States. A sentence in his speech read: “We may observe, with as much sadness as irony, that outside of Africa, south of the Sahara where education is still a difficult challenge, the only places on the earth not to provide free public education are communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras – and Prince Edward County, Virginia.” What? British Honduras? Takes your breath away.

Virginia, on the other hand – as in Virginia, a commonwealth on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States – not so much. By 1963, Virginia had a long and supremely indecent record of separate and unequal schooling for its black and white youth. Take Prince Edward County in south-central Virginia, not far from Appomattox Court House, as an example. The county seat is in Farmville, a small agricultural town on the Appomattox River. Prince Edward County closed its public schools for four years – from the spring of 1959 to the autumn of 1963 – rather than comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling to desegregate. No town money was allocated for a school budget. The public schools were locked, no-trespassing signs staked in their grounds. Prince Edward County cobbled together a private school in Farmville – Prince Edward Academy – for its white children (white children who could pay, that is; when it came to issues of class, the county was an equal-opportunity bigot). The black children could fend for themselves.

Journalist Kristen Green – erstwhile reporter for The Boston Globe, San Diego Union-Tribune, and Richmond Times-Dispatch – grew up in Farmville. She was not born at the time of the lockout, but she did attend Prince Edward Academy, which was not integrated until Green was in eighth grade, in 1987.

As a white kid, she understood the social scheme of things, but was fairly clueless as to its roots and ramifications. Green was the fish that asked, “What’s water?” Once she graduated college, moved out West, married a native American, moved back East and mothered two girls, she developed a curiosity about her upbringing – couldn’t fathom, couldn’t square, her memory of Farmville with 1959 Farmville.

Then she and her family moved to Richmond, Va., and that abiding curiosity spurred the investigation resulting in Something Must Be Done about Prince Edward County, a mélange of history and memoir, a delineation of Virginia’s particular veneer of bijou politesse spread oh-so-thinly over an easily provoked racist vitriol, and a quest to understand why her generous and loving grandparents, in 1960, were still living in 1860. The ghost of Farmville’s past had bitten Green, inflicting a case of familial guilt: “What was wrong with my hometown?”

There were hitches to the quest, however, for example, that politesse tended to keep the personal, everyday rationale for racist behavior behind closed doors, now as well as for those living 50 years ago. Even Green’s mother was uncomfortable talking with her daughter about the issue. Though there are plenty of instances of Virginians dropping their guards to spew filth – right before he closed some schools in autumn 1959, Virginia Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. gave a radio address castigating “those who defend or close their eyes to the livid stench of sadism, sex, immorality, and juvenile pregnancy infesting the mixed schools of the District of Columbia and elsewhere” – most of the whites in Farmville today just want the horror to go away. “Every time you dig it up, you just make a stink. Just leave it be,” are words Green heard more than once, slamming the door to enlightenment.

Many blacks were also uneasy talking about the past, but others were willing. So the crux of the book shifts to gathering the circumstances that surrounded the closing of the public schools and what so threatened the white population. The circumstances are quite a story, and Green administers it with both precision and passion. Drawn from the testimony of black residents she interviewed and her many hours combing library sources, she casts a sharp picture of the geographical, social, and economic consequences of segregation.

The picture focuses on the ruinous gap between black and white schools, how it led to black student demands for more equitable funding (477 students jammed into a half tarpaper-shack building meant to accommodate 180, too few books, too little heat, no gym, no cafeteria, no labs, busted buses) and how those demands morphed into the call for integration, as in Brown vs. Board of Education – an amalgamation of five lawsuits, one of which represented the walkout of black students in Farmville, a gutsy piece of direct action – not some retrofitting of Plessy vs. Ferguson, for as every black schoolchild knows, “There is no such thing as separate but equal.” 

Here was an immediate threat to the white Virginian pipe dream – “The segregated races formed a citizenship, and a way of living together, which has brought phenomenal developments into the South” – and the town had no intention of becoming the special target of the SCLC, NAACP, and SNCC. This spawned the segregated academy movement to simply defund the public schools, an action that many a municipality found compelling; if there are no public schools, desegregation goes away. Keep smoking that pipe, Farmville.

Kicking and screaming, integration did come to Prince Edward County, after a fashion, but not before, once again, black families were torn apart, this time having to send their children far and away for schooling, if they could. Over 1,000 black children would receive no public schooling in Prince Edward County for four years, with effects felt, often profoundly, to this day. These are lives that suffered hateful damage, and there are moments when Green’s feelings, which she freely shares, though legitimate and stinging if for no other reason than by association, are intrusively out of place.

Perhaps it took that laying bare to arrive at an elemental truth: The institution of racism in this country, not only down in Prince Edward County, is so calcified it’s geologic. Green is shrewd enough to appreciate that “it is an exceeding slow evolution, growing from a racist place to one that is not.... It is an unlearning process that takes generations, a natural progression that still has not been completed.” As an argument for reparations, one needs look no farther than Farmville. Green shares a story wherein a mother teaches the right way to handle a mistake: “My Friend pulled her son aside and told him that the apology alone wasn’t enough. He also needed to enquire about the other boy, listen to his response, and help him get up.” Farmville is still segregated, de facto if not de jure, and continues to abjure responsibility for robbing children of their childhood.

To say that "Something Must be Done about Prince Edward County" is “timely” would be a cliché. So, let’s call it timely (and trenchant and, yes, poignant), because clichés are always right, though tired, unlike stereotypes, which, as flung around in Farmville 50 years ago, are tired and wrong and obscene. Today, considerably less money is spent per minority student than white student nationwide, and the graduation rate of black male high schoolers is below 50 percent. Pile that atop the broken relationship between police departments and their black communities. Something must be done, and that may only be achieved when blacks obtain more political power – a slow evolution, as Green notes, though she is anxious to get a move on. Remember that John Roberts, then a young lawyer in the Reagan White House, whispered in the president’s ear not to extend the Voting Rights Act. Reagan ignored his advice, just as the Supreme Court is now ignoring laws restricting people’s voting rights, principally minority people. Evolution, for the time being, not slow, but glacial.

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