“Massive Resistance” at Ground Level: The Case of Prince Edward County, Virginia (Teaching Civil Rights, 5)

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A Review of

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

[NOTE:  One of the great joys of my last few years in the classroom was the opportunity to teach an elective course  for juniors and seniors on the History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Preparing for—and teaching—that course led me to read many works on the  Movement, as well as to discover several videos to supplement my course.  Since my May 2010 retirement, I have continued to read books on Civil Rights and have reviewed some of them on this site (see here, here, here, here).

Recently, I discovered another volume that might help high school (and college) students understand the impact of the so-called “long civil rights movement,” which, as the label suggests, began well before the rise of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.]

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amazon.co

Kristen Green was born in Farmville, Va., in 1973, the daughter of white, middle class parents.  She and her siblings attended the same high school her parents had, Prince Edward Academy (PEA), which had been built as the white private school in the county when Prince Edward’s white leadership, including Green’s grandfather, shuttered the county’s public schools, black and white, to avoid having to integrate them in the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Green left Farmville for college; became a journalist; and moved to the West Coast, where she met–and subsequently married–a man who was part Native American. Eventually, Green’s family included two mixed-race daughters. The Green family moved to Richmond, Virginia, where Kristen took a job on the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

As an offshoot of her work at the Richmond newspaper, Green decided to revisit the Prince Edward County school closings, in order to understand how they came about and what role her family, especially her adored–and adoring–grandparents, had played in those events. So, this book is part memoir, because her family’s presence in Prince Edward County over several generations put them at the epicenter of the school-closings controversy.

The book also is part history; Green includes information garnered from published primary sources, as well as from interviews with whites and blacks affected by the school closings.  Interviewees included some of the African Americans who had been barred from the county’s black schools in the post-Brown era, who spoke about what the lockout cost them and their families, at the time and since (on the other hand, some blacks and more than a few whites were reluctant to discuss those events).

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I’m always struck by how slow integration was in the wake of Brown–there’s a statistic, in this book as well as in many others, to the effect that, a decade later, less than 10% of southern public school children were in a classroom with a child of another race.  I’ve always wondered why this was so, and Green’s book helps to answer that question, at least for one community.

Green carefully charts the decision by the county’s white leadership to defy the Supreme Court’s Brown ruling by closing all of Prince Edward’s public schools in 1959 rather than  integrate them. But, of course, education remained important to the children of the county’s white elite, so PEA was founded, one of the South’s first “segregation academies.”

Poor white children couldn’t afford to go to PEA because, although it was tuition free the first year, payment of tuition was required thereafter.  Prince Edward County became the “poster child” for Virginia U.S. Senator—and state political boss—Harry Byrd’s concept of “massive resistance,” but took it further than any other school system in Virginia or elsewhere, by both shutting African American kids out of the county’s previously segregated black schools and pretty much ignoring the plight of the county’s poor white school children, whose families couldn’t afford to send them to PEA.

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Green is interested in what happened; why it happened; and, especially, how what happened affected black students excluded from Prince Edward County’s public schools for half a decade.

African American parents had options for their children, but none were attractive:

1)      First, black parents could do nothing, the path followed by many. This meant that, for five years, the bulk of Prince Edward’s black children had no real access to education, except for locally-sponsored efforts using black church facilities.  The purpose of this approach was to allow students who had already begun school perhaps to maintain basic skills, and perhaps to introduce beginning students to the alphabet and to very rudimentary arithmetic.

2)      Since Prince Edward was the only Virginia county to close its public schools for half a decade, a few of Farmville’s black families tried to place their children in neighboring school systems, until those venues discovered that the new arrivals were from Prince Edward and so should not be educated at their neighbors’ expense and, of course, in defiance of Senator Byrd’s concept of “massive resistance.”

3)      Two local black Farmville ministers, L. Francis Griffin and Alexander Dunlap, arranged for more than sixty upper-level students from the closed Robert Russa Moton High School to finish their educations as boarders at historically black Kittrell College in North Carolina, about twenty miles from the Virginia line. Those students received a break on tuition, and a black Christian organization in Farmville, chaired by The Reverend Griffin, helped pay their bills.

4)      And then there were the heartbreaking decisions made by some Farmville African American families to send children out of Virginia, as the only way for them to continue their schooling.  (A different source notes that only thirty-five black students were able to avail themselves of this option. [Anderson, “Burning Brown to the Ground,” 45])  One such student, the daughter of the Green family’s long-time housekeeper, moved to Massachusetts.  Gwen Lancaster adapted so well to life in her aunt’s home in the Boston area that she did not return to Farmville, even after public schools reopened there.  Gwen’s decision not to come home devastated her mother Elsie, and highlights one of the major points made by Kristen Green, the lack of empathy among Prince Edward’s white community, including Green’s own family, for the damage their decision to close the county’s schools in 1959 had dealt to black families—and to poor white families as well.

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Ultimately, the court system forced Prince Edward County to reopen its public schools, though the process took longer than it might have otherwise, because Harry Byrd, the godfather of “massive resistance” controlled Virginia; President Eisenhower apparently was not interested in what had happened there; and the Kennedy Administration tried to talk tough while keeping in mind the strength of southern whites in the Democratic coalition.

Green also traces in some detail what has happened to the Prince Edward County schools since they reopened in 1964.  At the time of her writing (2015), the private “academy,” now renamed the Fuqua School, thanks to a hefty donation by Atlanta entrepreneur J.B. Fuqua, still existed, though its enrollment had dropped.  (There is irony here:  Mr. Fuqua responded to a request from an old friend in Prince Edward, who also happened to have been the prime mover in the effort to close the county’s schools in the first place rather than integrate.  Green’s chilling interview with this local leader opens the book, and it soon becomes clear that the man, elderly and ailing, would take his racist views to the grave.)

The story of the county’s public schools after they were reopened reveals some successes, but it also underlines the importance of a few dedicated leaders who believed in integration and were determined to do what they could to further it.  Unfortunately, neither the successes of a white county superintendent nor those of an African American  principal at the local high school towards integration were deeply-rooted enough to last,  because their successors evidently lacked the commitment of their predecessors.

One turning point in the story was a conversation Green had in a local McDonald’s with a black man, who told her that his family had moved to New Jersey after the Prince Edward schools were closed, and that he had only returned to Farmville seven years earlier.  Although he believed the town had changed, he also felt that Farmville’s leaders, most of whom still were white, were “just waiting for all of us [who had lived through the school closings] to die so they can pretend it never happened.” (260)  As this anecdote suggests, the Prince Edward story is depressing, deeply affecting, and far from over.

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kristengreen.net

kristengreen.net

Kristen Green is an interesting character in her own right.  She arrived in Richmond as a racial “liberal,” dedicated to the cause of public education and convinced that consistent engagement by parents in their kids’ public schools was the sine qua non for long-term progress.  But that was in Richmond’s “Fan” district, which was filled with lots of liberal white and black parents like herself.

Green admittedly was, at the start of her Farmville project, woefully ignorant of what had happened in Prince Edward County in the wake of Brown v. Board, but nevertheless determined to “get to the truth.”  She wore her heart on her sleeve as she interviewed whites and blacks, stubbornly stirring up memories of Prince Edward’s ignominious past that most whites—and some blacks—wished to keep buried.

Green looked for signs of “empathy” from local whites, but she also searched for evidence of “redemption,” not least from her parents, who had attended Prince Edward Academy themselves, placed her and her siblings there without any real discussion, and where her mother spent twenty years as a guidance counselor.

Finally, while preparing lunch for her daughter and hearing, yet again, Kristen’s frustration over the refusal of local whites to reconsider the county’s actions in the late 1950s, Green’s mother said quietly, “we all wish it hadn’t happened. I wish it hadn’t happened.” (242) And that, for Green, was enough.

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I’m happy that her mother’s words helped free Green from her funk over the question of race relations in Prince Edward County’s schools.  I’m not sure, though, that the rest of us, especially those who lived through the period she studied, should let the county off that easily.  Most obviously, African Americans–and poor whites–who were prevented from continuing their education because of what happened in Prince Edward may be excused if they seem unwilling to echo that frequently heard sentiment, “Can’t we just move on?”

A recent, more statistical, and less anecdotal study of white attitudes in Prince Edward County towards segregation argues that, as of 2013, “despite a knowledge-based, technology-driven global economy, the number one occupation in the county seat of Farmville was ‘cook and food preparation worker.'”  Moreover, 9.9% of the white households in Prince Edward had annual incomes of less than $10,000, while 32.9% of black households were below that figure.  This was “‘the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession,’ for wide swaths of the” people in Prince Edward County. (Anderson, “Burning Brown to the Ground,” p.45)

Not to put too fine a point on it, then, the answer to that clichéd inquiry is—or should be— “No, we can’t just move on.”

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SOURCES:

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

Carol Anderson, “Burning Brown to the Ground,” Teaching Tolerance, Issue 54 (Fall, 2015), 42-45.

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For  those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

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In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

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Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

 

 

 

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About georgelamplugh

I retired in 2010 after nearly four decades of teaching History at the "prep school" level with a PhD. My new "job" was to finish the book manuscript I'd been working on, in summers only, since 1996. As things turned out, not only did I complete that book, but I also put together a collection of my essays--published and unpublished--on Georgia history. Both volumes were published in the summer of 2015. I continue to work on other writing projects, including a collection of essays on the Blues and, of course, my blog.
This entry was posted in "The Race Beat", Age of Jim Crow, American History, Books, Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Education, Elective History Course for 9th and 10th Graders, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, Martin Luther King, Popular Culture, Prep School, Prince Edward County Virginia, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized, WP Long Read and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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