Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County is a look at part of the Civil Rights movement that I wasn't aware of. In Prince Edward County, Virginia, the order to desegregate public schools was not well received by white residents, especially given that black students in the County public schools had been among those involved in Brown v. Board of Education. Whites had no intention of letting their children be educated in the same building as blacks, so they came up with a solution: the county defunded all the public schools and closed them, while at the same time opening a whites-only private school.
This arrangement continued for five years. When the County finally gave in to pressure and reopened a public school that would be integrated, the private school remained open as well--and not surprisingly, most white students stayed at the private school, effectively maintaining segregation for many more years. During those years, there were hundreds of black students who found themselves either having to forego education (and many remained illiterate for decades), or they found themselves pawned off to relatives in other counties, where they could attend a public school, breaking families apart. One enterprising family bought an old house in another county and drove their children to it each day, instructing them to enter through the back door, then run out the front door when they saw the school bus coming, even though no one actually lived there. Eventually so many other children joined them, they nearly filled an entire bus at that stop.
Even once the public school was reopened, things were far from equal. The County provided as little funding and support as it could. The private school eventually not only began accepting black students, but recruiting them--especially the athletic ones. Whites who wanted to send their children to the public school were threatened in various ways. Today, author Kristen Green writes, the school district is failing, its resources spread too thin, and with the recently renamed private school still a constant reminder of the County's horrific abandonment of the black children for all those years, racial tensions still exist.
It's a fascinating story about racism, especially in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. This didn't happen all that long ago, and according to the author, blacks in Prince Edward County are still not receiving quality educations, unless they can afford and are willing to attend the private school instead. And yet, some things have changed--just not nearly fast enough, and not nearly thoroughly enough.
That brings me to one problem I had with an otherwise well-done book. Author Green's grandparents were active members of the group that fought against desegregation and supported the private school. Green herself attended it as a child. Her grandparents are dead, so she was not able to interview them about their actions and their beliefs. She frames the book around her personal experience with grandparents who were otherwise wonderful, and at times seems almost to grieve that they were involved in such a heinous action. Other times she tries to justify it, saying they were the product of their place and time. Then she tries to demonstrate how generations can change by pointing out that she herself married a brown man and has biracial children. That's great--but while her family needed two generations to get to that point, how many black children lost out on a good education or were separated from their parents during that same time?
It's a bit confounding to have had a white woman write this book, especially with the framework she uses. Sometimes it works to great effect, as she describes the relationship her grandmother had with her black housekeeper, Elsie. Elsie ended up sending her daughter out of state to be educated, while she continued working for one of the families that caused her to become a long-distance mother. It's a tremendously complicated relationship that lasted decades.
But too often, Green talks about things like the wonderful birthday party her daughter had, with a rainbow cake and guests all the color of the rainbow. It's strained. It makes me wish there was a black counterpart to this narrative. Green did considerable research and conducted lots of interviews, but still, her viewpoint is the dominant one. It's as if she's trying to convince the reader that she's not racist, even if her grandparents were. The funny thing is, the context of the book already makes that clear; there's no question that she thinks the closing of the schools to blacks was a terrible injustice, and she documents in great detail how it has played out through subsequent generations. If she were a hardcore racist, this is not a story she would tell.
I guess it's a start, and given that Green documents the desire whites in Prince Edward County have to let bygones be bygones--and preferably completely forgotten bygones--she's done a service by compiling these stories, so they aren't airbrushed out of history. Now if only she'd do a follow-up book that would be more of the black perspective instead.