“Something Must Be Done about Prince Edward County” by Kristen Green

July 30, 2015

The color pencils are sharp, lined up like fence posts in their unscuffed box. So are the crayons, the pens all wear caps, and notebook covers are free of doodling. The backpack seems as though it’s been starched, but give it a month: after your child goes back to school, it’ll be a different story – one unlike that in the new book “Something Must Be Done about Prince Edward County” by Kristen Green. Not until she went away to college did Kristen Green ever think about how she was raised.Something Must Be Done Abt Prince Ed Co.

 

Hers was a relatively privileged upbringing: as white children, she and her brothers spent summers eating ice cream, riding bikes, sitting on the porch of their home in Farmville, Virginia, and visiting their grandparents, who lived just down the block. They attended a private school (their parents’ alma mater), and they enjoyed the labors of a housekeeper who came ever Wednesday to clean. That housekeeper, Elsie Lancaster, whom Green considered as “part of our family,” was the first black person Green ever knew – or, at least figured she did. But she really didn’t think about it until after college, after she’d gotten a job as a reporter focusing on poverty and race issues, after she’d married a Native American man, and after she realized how much her grandmother disapproved of her mixed-race marriage. Mixedrace great-grandchildren would’ve greatly upset Mimi but nobody in the family would discuss it, so Green became determined to find out why.

Before Brown vs. the Board of Education, Farmville schools were segregated – separate, but unequal. The white school boasted amenities; the black school was overcrowded and underfunded. The Supreme Court’s decision set Farmville’s white residents back on their heels, vowing that desegregation was never going to happen in their town; separation, they said, was “just the way things were.” So when the Supreme Court pressed the issue years after Brown v. Board, white residents closed the county’s schools, greatly harming poor whites, black families, and black students. And Green’s beloved grandfather – a man she adored – helped it happen… As I was reading “Something Must Be Done about Prince Edward County,” I have to admit that I was a bit baffled. Author Kristen Green admits that she “came to the story from a place of privilege.”

So what about it? Plenty, as it turns out. Although she says that the town’s elders seem to want this historical event to disappear, Green doesn’t let that happen: she digs and digs, uncovering the whole of an outrageous story that would be front-page news these days. She even finds some of the kids-now-adults that were most affected by school closures, then she throws readers a bone of goodness amid the shame. Finally, although in this case what’s done can’t be undone, Green shows that amend-making has to start somewhere. Sharp-eyed readers may notice some resemblance to The Help here, but “Something Must Be Done about Prince Edward County” is no novel. Nope, this is a feat of journalistic reporting with a personal twist, and it’s pretty sharp.