tv Book Discussion on Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County CSPAN August 14, 2016 3:30am-4:01am EDT
>> if you are tweeting today, use the hashtag gbf, and we need your feedback. surveys are available at the tent and on our web site. complete a survey for a chance to win a $100 visa gift card. i'm pleased to introduce author kristen green. she'll be signing books immediately after the presentation, and copies of her books are on sale in the politics & prose tent, a great partner for us this year. a quick word about buying books. even though this is a free event, it does help the book festival if you buy books. the more books we sell at our event, the more publishers are willing to send their authors here to the book festival. purchasing books from politics &
prose does benefit the local economy. it supports local jobs, supports our book festival. so if you enjoy the program and you're in a position to do so, please consider buying the authors' books here today. so let me introduce kristen. kristen green is an author who grew up in farmville, virginia, and that's important because it's important to the story. she graduated from the university of mary washington in fredericksburg. she is a graduate of the harvard kennedy school of government. she is a journalist. she most recently worked at the richmond times dispatch. prior to that, at "the boston globe" and san diego union tribune. she currently lives in richmond, virginia. she has a husband, jason, and two daughters who you'll become intimately familiar with when you read this book. so let me tell you about this wonderful book that we're presenting here today, "something must be done about
prince edward county." it is a new york times bestseller, it's a washington post notable nonfiction. and for those that want to support kristen, it is up for library of virginia people's choice award, so you can go to the web site to get this book voted as a people's choice award. it's an interesting book not only because i'm a lawyer and i love race relations topics, brown v. board of education is something that i studied in depth when i was in law school, but also for those of you that do not know that gaithersburg was voted recently the most diverse city in america. so those of us here today who live in gaithersburg may not fully appreciate that race relations were not always as they have been. and that's what this book is about. kristen grew up in farmville, virginia, in prince edward county, and for those of you that do not know this, in the wake of the seminal supreme
court decision, brown v. board of education, which ruled that segregation of schools and education was unconstitutional, prince edward county was the only county in this country to close its schools rather than desegregate their schools. and what this book is about, it's an interesting introspective where she goes back to look at her own family's involvement, her own community's involvement with this very troubling time in our nation's history. so the book will flip back and forth between the history -- which i love, i'm a nonfiction guy -- but it also talks about her own experience with that history and confronting that history. so i encourage you to listen to kristen here today, go to the politics & prose tent, consider purchasing this book or, as i did, i went on amazon and purchased the book as well. so without further ado, i'd like to bring kristen up to the stage, and let's welcome her. [applause] >> hi, everybody.
thank you so much for that kind introduction, and thank you to gaithersburg for having me here today for this event. i'm glad so many of you came out, rain or shine. and i'm just thrilled to be here and to be able to share my story with you. i grew up in prince edward county, virginia, which is the only community in the nation to close its schools for five years rather than desegregate. it was a story that i didn't know growing up. i only knew little bits and pieces of what had happened in my hometown well before i was born, is and i became a journalist and was working on the west coast when i started to develop an interest in learning more about what had actually happened in my hometown. it took a long time for me to develop a curiosity about what had happened because the story wasn't really talked about where i came from. it was kind of pushed under the rug, you know?
and i think the way that the story was shared was really oversimplified. so when i -- i became a journalist and ended up moving to the west coast, and i i became a more curious person. i developed an interest in writing about people that newspapers don't do a great job writing about, and that's people of color, immigrants, people who live in poverty. and i was working on that and moving to san diego where i became, i had friends for the first time who were people of color. i met my future husband, a multi-racial man, and became more engaged in learn aring about this history. about the same time, "the washington post" magazine did a really great, exhausting piece about what had happened in prince edward, and it was really the first time that someone who wasn't connected to me was telling a fuller story of what had happened there. and reading that made me think that i needed to learn the full story and that maybe it would
actually be a good book. and that was about ten years ago. [laughter] you can have an idea of exactly how long this kind of project takes to accept that you're actually going to do the project and then take it on. let me go back to the beginning with you and explain what i learned when i set out to write about what happened in prince edward. in 1951 a 16-year-old black girl walked out of her black high school in farmville, virginia, to protest the conditions of that school. of course, in 1951 schools were segregated, so there was a black high school and a white high school x. she had seen the white high school that was just down the street and knew how much better the facilities were at the white high school. so she led a protest with her fellow students to walk out to protest the conditions of that school. and the protest attracted the attention of the naacp in richmond, virginia, who initially wasn't interested -- weren't interested in taking on her case.
but they did agree to come to farmville and meet with students and their parents there. and after seeing how dedicated these parents and students were to their cause, they told them that they would be willing to take on their case. but it was on one condition, and that condition was that they would seek integration rather than equal facilities. a year earlier, in 1950, the naacp had changed direction and decided that equal facilities were never going to be enough and that they needed to seek desegregation in schools and in all facets of public life. and so the students who had this core committee of students who had planned for months this walkout actually had to take a vote on whether they were going to agree to go along with what the naacp was asking. and according to students who were there, their decision to go along with this only won by one vote. [laughter] that's crazy to me. and so this case ended up
becoming one of five cases in brown v. board of education. so brown is an umbrella case which i didn't realize until i started reporting this, that prince edward was the only case of the five that was student-led. and it produced 75% of the plaintiffs for the entire brown case. so i think that that case emerging from out of prince edward county is kind of what set the stage for what happened many years later when the schools were closed. i i think white leaders were embarrassed that this case was filed against them, and they suggested that they would build a black high school for the students. they would replace the high school as had been requested of them for many years if only the black students and their parents would drop this suit. but by that point, the black families wanted to move forward with the suit. and so white leaders did go ahead and build this new high school in 1953 anyway.
as you know, the brown decision was handed down a year later. i think the white leaders' response to the brown decision had a lot to do with embarrassment, right? they were -- and also fear. they were afraid that their community would be held up as an example to the rest of the nation and required to desegregate their schools as an example. senator byrd, senator harry byrd, led a pushback to brown v. board of education that came to be known as massive resistance. he believed that communities should push back to this requirement to desegregate schools and that if virginia pushed back, then the south would get behind them. and if the south, you know, refused to desegregate its schools, then the rest of the country would realize that they were never going to get on board. i don't know if he hoped that the case would be overturned.
i'm not sure what his logic was there. but that was his thinking, right? and so there were a lot of people in south side, virginia, where prince edward county is located, that supported that logic. and so they -- and in prince edward county and other locations, they formed this group called the defenders of state sovereignty and individual liberties. and in farmville that group suggested -- just six months after the brown hearings, the brown decision -- that perhaps closing the schools was something they should do to avoid desegregation if push came to shove. and i found in my research that the local are newspaper also suggested this within six months of the decision. and the pages of this newspaper that were shaping public opinion said, you know, we're going to refuse to desegregate our schools, and if we have to, we will close the schools rather than do so. so they put this idea out there very early after the brown decision.
i think for me working on research, that was a real turning point, to realize that a court did not require prince edward to desegregate its schools until 1959. the brown decision ended up coming on the backs of black families because of the way the decision was written. and even a follow-up decision didn't make clear exactly how desegregation was supposed to happen and on what timeline. so black families were forced to go to court and ask schools and school districts to admit their children, right? is so i think, i think in prince edward, you know, they were out ahead of the game and figuring that they would be forced to desegregate. this action, by saying -- they took a stand that they were going to close their schools if they had to. and realizing that they had taken that position so early, right, and that they had had so much time to come up with better options, to come up with ideas
that wouldn't have affected so many children, that, for me, was a real turning point in my research. at the same time, i also realized that my own grandfather had been one of those people who was a founding member and an officer of the defenders' organization in prince edward county. and that changed a lot for me about how i approached this book, because the book was no longer, you know, i could no longer blame my town for what had happened, but my family was also at fault. and at that point the book became much more personal. as i told you, i had met my future husband, a multiracial man, and we were planning to have children, and i knew that those children represented exactly what white leaders in my town were trying to prevent, which was a mixing of the races. that was their biggest fear. that was the thing that they
most wanted to avoid. and when it became more of a personal book, then that allowed me to kind of explore my grandfather's role and how i felt about that and to look deeper at what had happened in my hometown. so let's jump forward to 1959 when the court did finally say that prince edward county had to desegregate its schools. prince edward, white leaders had been prepared for that day, right? i said they had mentioned this idea of closing the schools. they didn't just mention it. they raised money for that five-year period to try to start a private academy should the need arise. so so they had people promising funds for that period of time. in addition, the board of supervisors there, the governing body, had gone to a month-to-month financing model so that they could just close the schools at any time, you know?
if courts came to them and told them to desegregate the schools, they would be ready toschos. so when the courts finally did require in 1959 that they desegregate, they did as they had threatened to do and voted not to fund the schools. and by not funding the schools, they shut down all public education in prince edward county. the moment that decision was made, these people that had been planning for years to start a white academy went ahead and launched one, and they did so by calling all the white churches in town, the white, you know, volunteer groups and kind of civic organizations and asking if they could use basements of their churches and use the rotary halls in order to hold classes for the white children. their plan was to have a school up and running come fall of 1959 so that white children would have somewhere to go.
black students did not have this opportunity. i mean, for them to have started a private academy would have gone against what they were trying to accomplish, right? and so -- and i also think that they didn't, nobody really knew how long the schools would be closed. even oliver hill, the naacp attorney from richmond, couldn't believe that white leaders were really going to go through with this, right? that they would really close all public schools. they thought this was a threat. and even though, you know, the doors had already been locked in the summer of 1959, he was convinced that the schools would still reopen that fall. some families, black families that were worried that their kids wouldn't be able to graduate went ahead and made plans for their children. particularly like the kids who were older, you know, juniors and seniors in high school. everybody realized how important it was for those kids to get a diploma. i mean, if you think about today how important it is, at that time for a black child to get a
diploma a really meant something. so these families had worked so hard for that moment that they were trying to find ways that their kids could graduate. and so some students were sent to live with family members, you know, older sisters or aunts in the north in particular. some students went and lived at a college in north carolina, an ame church related school that was -- that had agreed to take in about 60 students from prince edward county. and then the black churches also started these training centers in the basement of their churches where they were not considered schools, and they were not taught by official teachers, and they were not full-day programs, but they were meant to engage young students so they could have some involvement with schooling even though they wouldn't be going to school that year. and so parents of younger kids
did send their kids to those training centers. but i have to tell you the vast majority of black children did not go to school that year and did not go to school in subsequent years. nobody had any way of knowing that the schools would be closed for as long as they were. so children who were old enough went to work in the fields with their parents. i mean, and that exfrom income -- extra income, i mean, most people in prince edward were tobacco farmers, and so the extra income they could get from extra hands actually meant something to those families. and so it was a positive in that way. but it also meant that when the schools would reopen many years later, the students were lost. they had been working all those years. they weren't going to go back to school. and so this generation of children came to be known as the lost generation because so many of them were denied an education. on the other hand, i just want
to point out that there were many families who made huge sacrifices so that their children could be educated. and that wasn't something i realized going into this. i really wanted to write this book, because i wanted to tell the stories of those children who were telephoned an education, and i want -- who were denied an education. and there were so many different trajectories of what their lives looked like after the schools were closed. the one thing i had never considered was the way that families were torn apart once that decision was made, that because families really wanted their children to be educated, you know, i write about the ward family in the book where the two oldest children were about to graduate. they had a rising senior and a rising junior. and so those children were sent to the ame church school in north carolina, and then a younger daughter who was entering high school, ninth grade, would live with her grandparents in a neighboring county during the week, and then on weekends she would come home to her mom and dad.
but dad was working second and third jobs in order to provide the money that these kids needed to be at grandma's house and to be at a school in north carolina. and so betty jean, the ninth grader, told me it was like it ripped their family apart. they went from being this happy, joyful family where friends were coming and going all the time, you know, they lived right in the heart of farmville to really being, like, she and her mom on the weekends at the dinner table. and they would never be a family like that again except for christmas time. they never would sleep under the same roof again like they did then. and i came to find that that ripping apart of families really echoed the indignities of slavery, you know? and i had never thought going into the project about what that would be like, to have your children just, you know, ripped away from you so that they could get an education. those stories of the children and what their lives looked like
after the schools closed were some of the most meaningful parts for me of reporting this book. there's one student who's a really good student, and she was 9 years old when the schools closed. and her dad promised her that no matter what she would get an education. and he was going to see to that. she and her brother would walk three miles each way to one of those training centers. her neighborhood school had been only a mile away, so that was much further. and the students, the white students would pass by on the bus and spit out the window as she was walking to this church training center. they did that for two years, and on and off she would ask, she would ask her dad like, dad, when are we going to go to a real school? he would keep reminding her, yeah, you are going to go to a real school one day, i'm going to make sure. and finally after two years and there had been no movement towards reopening the schools, he decided he had had enough. he worked at the railroad, and
he had a project in an adjoining county, and some of his white peers at the railroad helped him to rent a house in appomattox county. and it was rundown house that really wasn't habitable, and they set out to make that house appear habitable. he worked on the front yard cleaning it up, and he repaired broken windows, his wife sewed curtains for those windows. but it wasn't until the year the school began, her dad was going to drop her off behind the house each morning with her brother, and they were to stand behind the house until they heard the bus coming down those county roads. and it was then and only then that they were to go through the back door of the house, through the house, out the front door, through the front yard and up the steps of that big bus. and they were never to tell anyone that they didn't live there, because if they did,
their education would be at stake. that story just gives me shivers even today every time i think about, you know, what she had to endure to get an education and what her parents were willing to sacrifice to make sure that happened. years later that woman, dorothy holcomb, became a school board member in prince edward county. she also worked at the state employment office in prince edward county, and kids she knew from her neighborhood would come in seeking unemployment benefits or looking for jobs, and she would have to go to the other side of the desk and help them fill out the forms because they were illiterate. so this five-year period of not having school, you know, not only affected those can kids and their parents -- those kids and their parents, but it has affected generations of children in prince edward county, right?
because the illiteracy of those parents has resulted in their children not being as literate as they would have been otherwise, right? and i think about all of the myriad of other effects of not having an education. it means not only you didn't get to achieve your dreams in life, but the economic situation that they were in would have been totally different had they had a high school diploma, had they been able to go to college, right? it might have meant that they could leave that town and get better jobs. it might have meant they could buy a house. so the impact on that generation and subsequent generations has been really significant. and that's part of what i wanted to explore in this book too. i also wanted to hook at what those -- to look at what those public schools looked like after they reopened and the effect on the town today. so that white academy that my grandfather and other white leaders helped to found that year in 1959 when the schools were closed, both of my parents attended that school.
they later returned to prince edward county and enrled my brothers and me in that school. and i was a student there in 1986 when prince edward academy, when it was then known, finally admitted black students. i found in my research that the only reason it did so was in order to have its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status restored which had been taken away for discrimination. when i was interviewing the man who was the headmaster of the school the whole time i was a student there and i said, you know, when you integrated prince edward academy -- i referred to it as integrating. he said, huh-uh, when we admitted black students. so that told me a lot about what the thinking had been for so many years about race relations in that town and where the academy stood in relationship to the public schools. i found in my research that -- i mean, my belief is that the town would be better off if there were only the public school
system because such a small community in rural virginia is unable to really fully support two school systems. and without the support of those white families who for generations have supported the private schools, the public schools aren't really able to prosper in the way that they need to. and i think many public leaders still view the schools as the black schools and continue to support it as such. and so i find that the school system is underfunded and inadequately supported by the whole community. it's not embraced as the whole community's public school system. i want to wrap up so that i can take a few questions. we just have a few minutes left. yes, ma'am. >> [inaudible] >> what got the public schools reopened, is the question. good question. it actually required another supreme court decision. yeah, in order to reopen the schools.
and that was 1964. a lot of people really had hopes that the kennedy administration would be able to do something and reopen them sooner. but they had just as much trouble doing that as, you know, black leaders did in building sport in prince edward. so it did require another supreme court decision, and it was a full five years. yeah. yes, sir. >> you lived there -- [inaudible] what do you think there was about the mindset of those who lived in farmville that set that apart from the rest of the south where they said we will not come my, we will close? >> you know, i don't know that it was something about the mindset that made them, that set them apart from the rest of the south. i think -- the only thing i can come up with that makes sense is that they were really, truly embarrassed about being part of that supreme court decision, of
being one of those five cases. and i think that that made them really want to do something to push back. and i think that senator byrd, you know, had a huge authority in that town and was meeting behind the scenes with, you know, prominent leaders there. and so maybe -- they may have used themselves as a test case, you know? they may have thought, like, if we can do this, then other communities can do this. i mean, and there is evidence to support some parts of that. like, the white leaders that had created that academy that i attended created a little booklet explaining how to do this. and they suggested to atlanta and to new orleans that those communities were also capable of doing what little, teeny prince edward county had done. and they were traveling around the country like espousing these views that if you want to shut down your schools and start a white academy, here's how you do it. and so, you know, i don't know
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