A de­seg­re­ga­tion bat­tle that Vir­ginia re­fused to lose

Book re­view by Glenn Frankel

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - book­world@wash­post.com Glenn Frankel is TheWash­ing­ton Post’s for­mer Rich­mond, Va., bureau chief. His most re­cent book is “The Searchers: The Mak­ing of an Amer­i­can Leg­end.”

SOME­THING MUST BE DONE ABOUT PRINCE ED­WARD COUNTY A Fam­ily, a Vir­ginia Town, a Civil Rights Bat­tle By Kris­ten Green Harper. 320 pp. $25.99

It was an act of crim­i­nal neg­li­gence: For five years, the white gov­ern­ment of Vir­ginia’s Prince Ed­ward County, aided and abet­ted by state of­fi­cials, shut­tered its 21 public schools and di­verted tax rev­enue to pay for white stu­dents to at­tend a pri­vate, seg­re­gated “academy.” Black stu­dents were de­nied the ba­sic right of an ed­u­ca­tion; a lucky few were sent farand wide to schools in other coun­ties and states, but most suf­fered a loss of learn­ing from which they never fully re­cov­ered.

The shut­down, which be­gan in 1959, was con­demned as a na­tional dis­grace by many Amer­i­cans. “The only places on Earth known not to pro­vide free public ed­u­ca­tion are Com­mu­nist China, North Viet­nam, Sarawak, Sin­ga­pore, Bri­tish Honduras — and Prince Ed­ward County, Vir­ginia,” said At­tor­ney Gen­eral Robert F. Kennedy, who helped lead the le­gal ef­fort that be­lat­edly com­pelled the county to re­open its schools in 1964.

No one was mur­dered or bru­tally beaten dur­ing the strug­gle for civil rights in Prince

Ed­ward, and the county’s shame­ful history of racial re­pres­sion and col­lec­tive pun­ish­ment of its black chil­dren has largely gone un­told. So has the tale of the heroic re­sis­tance of the black com­mu­nity and a hand­ful of white mod­er­ates.

Jour­nal­ist Kris­ten Green grew up in Prince Ed­ward County and at­tended the all-white pri­vate academy, which her grand­fa­ther helped found (and which fi­nally ac­ceded to fed­eral gov­ern­ment pres­sure and be­gan ac­cept­ing stu­dents of color in 1986). Now­she has pro­duced a well-re­searched and com­pas­sion­ate ac­count of what hap­pened and its im­pact on blacks and whites. “Some­thing Must Be Done About Prince Ed­ward County” is an es­pe­cially in­ti­mate por­trait be­cause Green in­ter­weaves public events with her fam­ily’s role, which was driven by the racism and gap­ing moral blind spots of her beloved grand­par­ents.

Prince Ed­ward is a pre­dom­i­nately ru­ral county in the heart of South­side Vir­ginia, less than 30 miles from where Robert E. Lee sur­ren­dered at Appomattox Court House in April 1865. It first came to na­tional at­ten­tion in 1951 whena coura­geous 16-year-old named Bar­bara Johns led a walk­out of her fel­low black stu­dents from the griev­ously de­crepit, un­der­funded and over­crowded Robert Russa Mo­ton High School, which all black stu­dents in the county had to at­tend. The build­ing, which had no li­brary, cafe­te­ria or science lab, was de­signed for 180 stu­dents but by 1951 held 477, crammed into de­cay­ing class­rooms and tar-pa­per shacks. Lawyers for the state NAACP orig­i­nally did not want to take the case, but the en­thu­si­asm and will­ing­ness of stu­dents and their par­ents to sac­ri­fice com­pelled the as­so­ci­a­tion to make it one of five cases that were con­sol­i­dated as Brown v. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion of Topeka. The Supreme Court, un­der its new chief jus­tice, Earl War­ren, unan­i­mously ruled in 1954 that sep­a­rate schools could never truly be equal and or­dered Prince Ed­ward County and the other de­fen­dants to de­seg­re­gate. But the strug­gle was only be­gin­ning.

The Vir­ginia Gen­eral Assem­bly, un­der the thumb of U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd’s ul­tra-con­ser­va­tive po­lit­i­cal ma­chine, passed a se­ries of laws es­tab­lish­ing a pol­icy it called “Mas­sive Re­sis­tance,” which re­quired all lo­cal school dis­tricts to defy the court’s de­ci­sion and cut off public funds to any dis­trict that sought to de­seg­re­gate.

Prince Ed­ward’s white lead­ers, in­clud­ing Green’s grand­fa­ther, cre­ated the Prince Ed­ward School Foun­da­tion, which used public money and pri­vate do­na­tions to cre­ate the all-white academy. They also helped found the statewide De­fend­ers of State Sovereignty and In­di­vid­ual Lib­er­ties, which pro­vided eco­nomic mus­cle and phys­i­cal in­tim­i­da­tion of black­sand the few dis­si­dent whites who fought to­keep the public schools open. J. Bar­rye Wall, editor and pub­lisher of the Far­mville Her­ald, spoke to the heart of white fears, warn­ing that if blacks and whites went to school to­gether, they would in­ter­marry and pro­duce mixed-race chil­dren, ren­der­ing “the peo­ple of Amer­ica a mongrel na­tion.”

In 1959, af­ter fed­eral and state courts de­clared Mas­sive Re­sis­tance un­con­sti­tu­tional, Gov. Lind­say Al­mond broke with the Byrd ma­chine and de­feated at­tempts to pass new pro-seg­re­ga­tion laws. ButPrinceEd­wardCoun­ty­wen­ta­head­with­it­sown­pro­gramof de­fi­ance. On the first day of school in Septem­ber 1959, 14 buses helped ferry 1,475 white stu­dents to the pri­vate academy, while 1,700 black chil­dren stood and watched. It took five years for the courts to over­turn this dis­as­trous pol­icy. By then, the il­lit­er­acy rate of blacks ages 5 to 22 had jumped from 3 per­cent to 23 per­cent.

The au­thor was born a decade later and learned lit­tle about these events while grow­ing up in Prince Ed­ward County. She left, be­came a news­pa­per re­porter in San Diego and Bos­ton, mar­ried a mul­tira­cial man of Amer­i­can In­dian de­scent and had two daugh­ters. In 2010, they moved to Rich­mond, in part to be closer to her fam­ily and its her­itage. “Maybe our daugh­ters could be part of a new gen­er­a­tion of di­verse South­ern­ers that would right some of the past’s wrongs,” she writes.

But as she was drawn back to her roots, Green be­gan to ex­plore the county’s shame­ful past. She was sur­prised to learn that her late grand fa­ther had been one of the founders of the Prince Ed­ward Academy and a mem­ber of the lo­cal board of the De­fend­ers of State Sovereignty. When Green set out to in­ter­view his friends and co-con­spir­a­tors, atone­ment was hard to find.

“We’re not bad peo­ple,” Robert T. Redd, the academy’s first head­mas­ter, told her. He re­fused to apol­o­gize, say­ing that whites had es­tab­lished the academy “be­cause they loved their chil­dren as your grand­fa­ther did you.” And he ex­pressed not a smidgen of guilt about the dam­age done to black stu­dents. “I would do it again, prob­a­bly,” he told Green.

Green writes with em­pa­thy about the vic­tims of this pol­icy. Like Doug Vaughan, a 15-year-old who was pre­vented from en­ter­ing the eighth grade. He and his older brother moved to Mount Ver­non, N.Y., where they rented a room for $19 a week, and sub­sisted largely on boiled lima beans and free ice cream from Doug’s job as a Good Hu­mor sales­man. Nei­ther boy got an ed­u­ca­tion (although Doug fi­nally got a col­lege de­gree un­der a state pro­gram of paid tu­ition for vic­tims of Mas­sive Re­sis­tance).

Or 10-year-old Dorothy Lock­ett, whose fa­ther drove her, her brother and three cousins ev­ery morn­ing to the un­safe ru­ins of a house in Appomattox County. He had the chil­dren wait be­hind the house, and when the school bus came, they would walk in through the back door and out the front and get on the bus.

But per­haps the sad­dest story con­cerns Elsie Lan­caster, the black woman who worked as Green’s fam­ily house­keeper for two gen­er­a­tions. When the schools closed, she felt com­pelled to send her only child, 9-year-old daugh­ter Gwen, to live with her sis­ter in Cam­bridge, Mass. Gwen got a good ed­u­ca­tion but grew up es­tranged from Elsie. Although Elsie worked in the house three days a week, Green’s grand­par­ents never asked about Gwen nor made any ef­fort to help her get an ed­u­ca­tion. “We had no idea what a big deal it re­ally was to the black com­mu­nity,” Green’s mother told her.

The bit­ter­ness lingers. Green re­counts how town of­fi­cials op­posed fund­ing a civil rights mu­seum in the old Mo­ton seg­re­gated high school. The white chair­man of the county board of su­per­vi­sors ad­vo­cated de­mol­ish­ing the build­ing, say­ing that its con­tin­ued ex­is­tence was “like rub­bing salt in a wound.”

To­day, the Robert Russa Mo­ton Mu­seum houses an im­por­tant col­lec­tion of ma­te­ri­als from the era (full dis­clo­sure: I’ve con­trib­uted $150in re­cent years af­ter vis­it­ing the­mu­seum). But the wounds still fes­ter. The old academy, now called the Fuqua School, con­tin­ues to draw off needed in­vest­ment and tal­ent from the public schools, ac­cord­ing to Green.

In the end, Green’s mixed-race fam­ily is her best re­venge. She has done the deed her grand­fa­ther most feared — mar­ry­ing a man of color and hav­ing chil­dren of mixed race — and the sky has not fallen. Her thought­ful book is a gift to a new gen­er­a­tion of read­ers, who need to know this story just as they are learn­ing about the Free­dom Riders, the Birm­ing­ham bomb­ings and the Ed­mund Pet­tus Bridge.


Dorothy L. Hol­comb and hun­dreds of other black stu­dents were left with few op­tions when Prince Ed­ward County stopped fund­ing lo­cal public schools in 1959.

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