Friday, July 31, 2015

Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County:

Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle
Kristen Green (2015, HarperCollins)

    In the fall of 1958, thousands of Virginia schoolchildren had a semester off from school, while the state's governor promulgated 'massive resistance' against Federal court orders for racial integration. Over the winter, the state backed down and reopened schools, admitting the first black students, but the following fall, Prince Edward County began the most massive resistance yet. Twenty-one schools, white and black, were shuttered in defiance of court-ordered integration. The shutdown would persist through four years, leaving some three thousand students without public schooling.

    For their own children, of course, the patriarchs of the county prepared a soft landing, in the form of Prince Edward Academy. Kristen Green is a second-generation product of the school, and a granddaughter of one of its founders. She was staggered to learn that the white citizens of Farmville had been thinking about a segregation academy since 1954, when the Supreme Court announced the decision in Brown v. Board of Education – a case in which the black high school students of Prince Edward County had been litigants, with the assistance of the Virginia NAACP.

    Green attended the academy, as her mother had before her; but only as an adult, after moving about the country and establishing a career in journalism, did she seek to investigate its origins. Her consciousness is sharpened by the fact that she is married to a brown-skinned man, and they have two daughters. Bringing the family back to Virginia to be closer to Green's parents and brothers meant questioning and confronting some beloved ghosts.

    But what, really, can they tell her? When she interviews one of the Academy's founders, he brags about using public school resources to get the new school off the ground. “We never did let the children miss a year.” He is thoroughly unreconstructed, with nothing, in his eyes, to apologize for. The other children, the children who missed four years of school or had to leave the county, are not his concern. Green's high school history teacher tells her, “I'm just so tired of this subject I could scream. I am tired of rehashing this thing. I just want to move on.”

    Green does not have much more luck with the black citizens she'd like to ask about those days. Many of them are gone, for one thing. Barbara Johns, who instigated the walkout that touched of Farmville's part of the Brown case, moved to her uncle's home in Montgomery, Alabama, to finish high school. The black woman who cooked and cleaned for Green's parents and grandparents sent her only daughter to live with relatives out of state, and the daughter never came back. Green observes, “The separation of children from their parents echoed the indignities of slavery and the irreparable harm done when the closest of relationships were suddenly severed.”

    Irreparable harm, indeed. Prince Edward County's literacy rate lags behind the rest of the state's down to this day. The academy now admits students of all races, but it still drains the public system of resources. Green shows us her own path from ignorance to awareness to a sort of painful guilt, but this is not work that she can do for anyone else, and in any case, guilt is not a fruitful end product. It doesn't do anybody any good unless it leads to greater awareness of what's going on today, and a greater willingness to think of all the children.

Published by email, August 1, 2015

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