In Virginia, a Small Town's Racial Lessons

A 1963 student protest in Farmville, Va., four years after Prince Edward County closed its public schools to avoid integration.
A 1963 student protest in Farmville, Va., four years after Prince Edward County closed its public schools to avoid integration. (© Richmond Times-dispatch)
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Sunday, May 4, 2008

Amid the controversy last week over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's latest comments and his relationship with Sen. Barack Obama ["Obama Calls Minister's Comments 'Outrageous,' " front page, April 30], it might be useful to take a look at some of the racial politics we've had in our region. The small town of Farmville in Southside Virginia offers a rich case study in what Obama has called "the racial stalemate," the failure of black and white people to openly discuss their mutual resentments.

In 1959, Prince Edward County shut down its public schools for five years to resist the racial integration ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court. The white children went to a hastily organized private academy that was subsidized by the state government; the black kids were left to fend for themselves.

Today, blacks and whites in Prince Edward still live racially isolated lives. The children of well-off white residents attend the private school established in 1959, leaving the predominantly black public schools starved for resources. The high school even has two cheerleading squads: one black, one white.

There has been precious little racial healing in Prince Edward because white and black folks avoid discussing what happened there. None of the town fathers ever admitted that the school shutdown was wrong. African Americans deprived of an adequate education continue to seethe with anger, passing it on to their children and grandchildren.

Obama, in his Philadelphia speech on race, called on Americans to participate in a genuine dialogue about racial attitudes. Conservatives dismissed his suggestion, comparing it to President Bill Clinton's now largely forgotten "national conversation on race" in the 1990s. Others saw it only as an effort to rescue Obama's presidential bid.

Yet even in Farmville, there is evidence that Obama's proposed remedy can work. For more than a year, members of the Prince Edward Dialogue for Reconciliation -- both black and white -- have been meeting monthly to openly discuss their prejudices with each other. It is the first time that any of them have talked about these issues in a biracial setting.

The results are remarkable. Despite some bitter exchanges, members of the group have developed strong personal bonds. Their most healing conversation came the night they were asked to recall a time of suffering in their lives. While the black men and woman mourned the loss of their life's potential for lack of education, whites acknowledged the town's tragic history had left them with feelings of loss and guilt. In such moments, blacks and whites recognize their common humanity.

Two weeks ago, the process expanded when the community's black and white pastors came together for the first time to discuss how they can assist racial reconciliation. When they meet again on May 17, they will discuss new ways to bring their congregations together.

Social science supports this approach. Two Smith College professors, Joshua Miller and Susan Donner, published a study showing that well-run small group racial dialogues offer perhaps the best alternative for improving race relations. They concluded: "If the talk is genuine talk, informed talk and persistent talk, it will identify the waste, cost, evil and tragedy of institutional racism."

Building racial trust does not require an expensive national program. It can be accomplished in small, voluntary gatherings hosted by local churches, schools and civic groups. But we must encourage open conversations about race. As we have seen recently in Farmville and in the presidential campaign, we can and we must try to end "the racial stalemate."

-- Sara Fritz


The writer, a Washington journalist, is working on a book about the racial history of Prince Edward County.

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