A Racist Commonwealth

Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle BY Kristen Green. Harper. Hardcover, 336 pages. $25.

Virginia is southern, but not like the rest of the South. Whereas other states flaunt their Dixie bona fides—their drawls, their barbecue, their own unique balance of manners and swagger—Virginia plays everything a bit cooler. Site of the earliest American dynasties and still home to five of the ten wealthiest counties in the nation, the Commonwealth (as natives fondly call it) has an altogether different attitude toward southernness than the rest of the region. For those Virginians who still consider themselves southern at all, theirs is the baronial South, the mint-julep South; they are descendants of what W. J. Cash identified as a “genuine, if small, aristocracy” that existed before the Revolution. This is the home of the Shenandoah, the “Mother of Presidents,” the Old Dominion. Don’t call them rednecks.

And certainly don’t number them among the worst offenders of the Jim Crow and civil-rights struggles. We don’t think of Virginia when we think of lynchings or the Klan—at least, we don’t think of it first—and the state wasn’t home to any landmark civil-rights protests like the Montgomery bus boycott or the march on Selma. “Through Virginia we had no problem,” says one freedom rider in Howell Raines’s oral history of the civil-rights movement, My Soul Is Rested (1977). “In fact they had heard we were coming, Greyhound and Trailways, and they had taken down the For Colored and For Whites signs, and we rode right through.”

Kristen Green confirms this anecdote in her new book, Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County, but she otherwise undermines the myth of manor-born decency that still informs the broader perception of the state. Green focuses on one particularly cruel episode: the closing of an entire school district for five years purely to defy the Supreme Court’s historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. From 1959 to 1964, the leaders of Prince Edward County decided that if their public schools couldn’t be segregated, they would simply shut them down. Many, though not all, of the county’s middle-class white families were able to organize and fund a private replacement academy, but black families had to choose between sending their kids to stay with far-flung relatives or depriving them of an education for half a decade.

Green is an experienced reporter for papers in Virginia and elsewhere, and her research for Something Must Be Done is admirable—a mixture of deep historical reading, archival detective work, and interviews with surviving community members. But she is no mere journalistic bystander: A native of Farmville, the county seat, she attended in the 1980s what was then still known as Prince Edward Academy, and she only came to understand the school’s shameful history as an adult, after years of living outside the South. What’s more, she discovered that her beloved grandfather was one of the academy’s founding supporters and a member of an ardent segregationist group called the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties, which was open only to “white law abiding citizen[s]” and harbored some of the staunchest local resisters of desegregation. “I can no longer put all the blame on my town for the tragic school closings,” Green writes. “My own family is at fault, too.”

There could scarcely be a better guide to Farmville’s local politics and history or to the self-image of its white population. And for a while it’s exciting to read history with this kind of personal frame—Green’s longtime nanny was separated from her daughter when the schools closed, and over the course of her reporting Green gives birth to children of her own with her Native American husband, starting “a family that would represent what . . . my grandfather and other white town leaders had tried to prevent: the mixing of the races.” But the book’s intensive focus on the Green-family legacy has the unfortunate effect of diluting the conceptual force of her chronicle, making it seem as though a community’s intellectual devastation and one woman’s reckoning with her white guilt are of equal importance.

This imbalance becomes especially evident in part because Green powerfully evokes the ugly intent behind the district’s closure. The county’s administrative response to the Brown mandate might seem a slightly more genteel form of racial animosity than the attack dogs and public beatings that were then convulsing the Delta region, but Green shows that the sentiment behind Prince Edward’s educational putsch was just as vicious. She digs through old issues of the Farmville Herald, which, in the wake of Brown, published pro-segregation editorials proclaiming a “difference in the background, the ability, and the desire among the races in Virginia to seek an education” and warning that integration would make “the people of America a mongrel nation.” By the time the standoff ended with the construction of privately funded “free schools” for black students in 1963, Robert Kennedy had referred to Farmville as “a disgrace to our country,” and Time magazine had called the school closings “the most infamous segregationist tactic in the US.”

The result? Between 1959 and 1963, only twenty-five black Prince Edward students were able to enroll full time, and 1,100 black children missed their education entirely. In 2003, years after the private academy had integrated, changed its name, and adopted admissions policies aimed at diversifying the student body, 16 percent of the county’s adult population was illiterate, 4 percent more than the state average. Green interviews many adults displaced by the school closings, including the housekeeper she grew up with, and the shame of that deprivation is still palpable. One man, now in his mid-sixties, wonders heartbreakingly, “Where would I have been if my foundation had been built?” Green moved home to come to terms with her family’s segregationist past, but with all due respect to that genealogical quest, it’s nowhere near as affecting as that one man’s testimony, nor as important to read.

John Lingan has written for The Baffler, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and other publications. He lives in Maryland.