In reaction to Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that public schools become integrated by race, the Caucasian policymakers in Prince Edward County, Va., closed the public schools from 1959 to 1964.
Robert F. Kennedy, then U.S. attorney general, famously said, “The only places on Earth not to provide free public education are Communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras — and Prince Edward County, Va.”
Many, probably most, Caucasian children found alternatives in local, private, segregated schools. But many, probably most, African-American children lacked affordable options and so had to leave their home county, or receive some sort of education from family members.
Kristen Green grew up in Prince Edward County. Her grandparents, whom she loved, played roles in the closing of the public schools. Those grandparents were overt racists. Green’s parents, while less avid about segregation, eventually placed her in the all-Caucasian private academy.
Now, decades later and employed as a newspaper reporter, Green has decided to offer an insider perspective by combining investigative reporting with memoir; the result is “Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County.” The decision to write the book took guts, because Green knew she would be publicly castigating not only her grandparents, but other relatives and friends, as well. She would also be unearthing the saga of Elsie Lancaster, the black woman employed by the Green family as cleaning lady, cook, and more. The school closing meant that Lancaster had to find an alternative for her own daughter.
Green’s motivations for undertaking such a painful book project are mostly unstated, but one of them is clearly her own marriage that has yielded two mixed-race daughters. When Green does inject herself into the narrative, the outcome is almost always positive for readers. Her involvement in the shameful history of Prince Edward County provides the book with an emotional edge not easily forgotten.
Toward the end of her research, Green moved back to Farmville, her birthplace, to live for a couple of months. The segregationist history has not been forgotten, but the present is different. At a local fast-food restaurant, Green chats with African-Americans, at least one of whom got shut out of a public education and moved away but has decided to return to Farmville permanently. He feels welcome, and he feels his family can live there safely. Green feels a twinge of optimism, then adds, “It is an exceedingly slow evolution, growing from a racist place to one that is not. It can’t be forced. It is an unlearning process that takes generations.”
Steve Weinberg, a longtime book reviewer, is writing a biography of Garry Trudeau. He lives in Missouri.