Glenn Frankel is The Washington Post’s former Richmond, Va., bureau chief. His most recent book is “The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend.”
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 far and 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). Now she 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 when a 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 blacks and the few dissident whites who fought to keep 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. But Prince Edward County went ahead with its own program of 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 grandfather 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 $150 in recent years after visiting the museum). 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.