Saturday, June 27, 2015

Review of Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County by Kristen Green

VCU Digital Collections: Farmville 1963 Civil Rights Protest

Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County by Kristen Green showed up for me at the library the day after the murders in Charleston.  The author is exploring the endurance of racism in her own little southern community – and in her family – by revisiting the topic of school segregation. The universe seemed to be pushing me to read this title, so it rose to the top of my leaning stack of books this week.

Prince Edward County, VA was the site of one of the five cases that made up Brown v. Board of Education. The case was significant for two key reasons. First, the civil rights activism that led to the case was generated by high school students, not adults.  And second, after the Brown ruling, Prince Edward County shut down its public schools altogether and set up publicly funded private academies for whites only. The result was that African-American kids did not receive any sort of public education in the county for five years.

Green’s central intention is to tell the story of the school closures, which were part of Virginia’s “Massive Resistance” to desegregation. But her other intention is to explore her own family’s relationship to the story of the school closures. In her research, she discovers that her beloved grandfather was one of the men in the community that promoted the private academy for white students; in effect, he was one of the local architects of the resistance. Moreover, Green herself attended the private school, which remained entirely segregated by race until she was in the eighth grade.

Hank Walker/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images at
This personal part of the story (which also involves grappling with the role Green’s multi-ethnic children might have in her family and in the community) is interesting.  Her conversations with others and her own reflection offer a lens into the way that racist systems don’t “just happen,” and they don’t “just disappear.” She interviews her family members and others in the town, and most express a wish to “get beyond” the painful past. But the legacy of the system sits in a deep (though polite) divide in the community that is relational, educational, and economic. And in particular, while the private academy has been reinvented as a independent school that promotes diversity, it is still seen by most residents as “the white school” in town. The public schools, though integrated, continue to have a reputation as “the black schools.”

This is good territory, but Green’s exploration exposes its own shortcoming, which is that Green’s voice is not the voice we need to hear. The most profound tragedy she uncovers is the way that Massive Resistance fractured African-American families. Many parents sent their children away to live with relatives in other states so that they could receive an education. Green learns that Elsie, the African-American housekeeper who took care of several generations of her family, sent her only child away to Massachusetts to go to school, and her daughter never came back. Green’s grandparents did not connect their own political work to prevent integration with the life of a woman who was taking care of their family every day. Years later, when Green interviews Elsie, she finds a distance and a grief around that experience that Green can’t penetrate.

And with that, the reader gets a sense that this book’s real story belongs to Elsie. But Green is the one who went to a good college, earned a journalism degree, and acquired a book contract. Green’s schooling provided an avenue to get her story space on bookshelves and on book blogs. If ever we needed evidence that education is a vehicle to power, this book makes that case.

The Moton Museum, whose development Green describes, houses documents and photographs related to school desegregation in Prince Edward County. Many of the collections are online. Other historical material is available as part of the Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries.

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