on June 9th 2015
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, History
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In the wake of the Supreme Court's unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision, Virginia's Prince Edward County refused to obey the law. Rather than desegregate, the county closed its public schools, locking and chaining the doors. The community's white leaders quickly established a private academy, commandeering supplies from the shuttered public schools to use in their all-white classrooms. Meanwhile, black parents had few options: keep their kids at home, move across county lines, or send them to live with relatives in other states. For five years, the schools remained closed.Kristen Green, a longtime newspaper reporter, grew up in Farmville and attended Prince Edward Academy, which didn't admit black students until 1986. In her journey to uncover what happened in her hometown before she was born, Green tells the stories of families divided by the school closures and of 1,700 black children denied an education. As she peels back the layers of this haunting period in our nation's past, her own family's role—no less complex and painful—comes to light.
Prince Edward County is in central Virginia. In the 1950s there was a segregated school system. The schools for black children were in horrible condition. The students led a walk out to protest. This led to a court case that was bundled in with others to become Brown vs The Board of Education, the case where the Supreme Court ruled the school segregation was unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court said that school had to integrate but didn’t give a time frame. Prince Edward County schools ignored the ruling for several years. When it looked like they were going to be forced to integrate, local leaders enacted a plan that had been in the works for several years. They closed all the public schools – white and black. They then opened a private school to white children only.
This led to black children being either sent out of the county for education or not getting an education at all. Families were scattered. Some never recovered.
Kristen Green’s grandfather was on the board of the new private school. Her grandparents’ housekeeper had to send her beloved only daughter north to get an education and she never returned. The grandparents and the housekeeper never talked about it. Green decided to investigate how this 5 year period of school closing affected the place where she grew up. She is driven by the fact that she married a Native American man and now has mixed race children. Would they be accepted in a place where segregation was so entrenched?
I was interested in the premise of this book because I know a family in Ohio who was involved in a similar situation. They helped start a private school in the 1970s when there was going to be busing of students to better integrate schools. I don’t know them well enough to ask questions about what exactly they were thinking so I read this book.
It is really sad. There was such a conspiracy. White families even gathered in the middle of the night to get vouchers for tuition paid for out of state funds for public schools. The banks opened in the night to let them deposit the checks before anyone found out.
There were some ingenious strategies to get the black kids education too. Colleges took some in. One family rented a dilapidated house in a neighboring county. It was too dangerous to go inside for long. Kids would get dropped off there early in the morning. They would stay in the backyard. When they heard the bus they would go in the back door, run through the house, and go out the front door like they lived there and were heading to school. This got so popular that at one point half the kids on the bus “lived” at that house.
This is a good book to read to see how racism can become institutionalized by people who don’t think they are doing anything wrong. Over and over people tell her that she would have done the same thing if she was in their situation. They just wanted a good education for their kids. The black students were behind the white kids (because of the bad schools they had endured). It would have hindered the white kids’ education to integrate. It’s for the children, don’t you understand? White children, that is.