Author Kristen Green shares civil rights lessons of Prince Edward County in Common Reading lecture

Journalist and author of Elon’s Common Reading this year, Green talked about the effects of public schools shutting down in her hometown of Farmville as she delivered the common reading lecture on Oct. 3 in Alumni Gym.

By Oliver Fischer ’19

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in the Brown vs. Board of Education struck down racial segregation in schools, but that didn’t stop some states from finding ways to keep black and white children apart.

The resistance to that court decision in Virginia was at the center of a lecture Wednesday night by Kristen Green, the author of “Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle.” The book by Green, who has worked as a journalist for the San Diego Union/Tribune and The Boston Globe, was this year’s Common Reading selection.

During her lecture, Green provided the background of what led to the landmark Supreme Court decision, and how that legal challenge played out in her own community. Green’s exploration of the aftermath of the court decision in her Virginia hometown would lead to her best-selling book, and a better understanding of racial strife in this country.

In 1954, the all-black Robert Russa Moton High School in Green’s hometown of Farmville, Virginia, was overcrowded. New classrooms were added in response. But they were poorly built. “Students on the edge of the class shivered in winter and those seated next to the heater boiled,” Green said.

Barbara Johns, a 16-year-old high school student, had seen the high school for white students a few blocks away from Moton. “She believed that they deserved better,” Green said. The white school had facilities that Moton lacked, including a gymnasium and infirmary.

“Barbara Johns decided to take action,” Green said. With the help of her classmates and months of planning, Johns led a protest against the subpar school conditions black students were facing. The NAACP agreed to take on Johns’ case if she agreed to work toward integration rather than equal facilities.

This case became one of five cases consolidated into Brown v. Board of Education. The legal challenge ultimately ended racial segregation in schools, but not everyone was on-board with the court’s decision, Green noted.

“Resistance against the 1954 Brown ruling in Virginia was immediate and strong,” Green said. Gov. John Battle vowed to continue segregation at schools. The Virginia legislature gave the governor the power to close any schools that wanted to integrate. Some schools, including those in Prince Edward County, where Farmville is located, were closed until 1959, when the federal government stepped in to address Virginia’s resistance to desegregation. This still wasn’t enough.

“When forced by a federal court to do so, the county instead voted not to fund public education,” Green said. “It boiled down to this: white people didn’t want their children going to school with black children.”

White parents worried that their children’s progress would be hindered by black students. They also feared interracial relationships. They started a fundraiser to open an academy just for white children while shutting down public schools.

“Most white children attended this new school, including my parents,” Green said. “Black families didn’t have that option.”

More than 1,700 black children in Prince Edward County were denied their right to public education. Although the highest court of the country believed these children were equal, the people in their community did not, Green said. The closing of public schools meant black students had to move, a step that would rip families apart, or forego an education and accept the consequences.

“At any time, the white leaders could have backed away from their decision and re-opened schools,” Green said. But it took another U.S. Supreme Court decision and five more years before schools were re-opened, she said.

This piece of her community’s history was not one she heard about as she attended the private school established in the wake of the Brown decision, Green said. Although public schools were re-opened in 1964, Green’s private school wouldn’t start admitting black students until 1986.

“It wasn’t until that year that I first understood what my school represented,” Green said. “Discrimination.” In the years that followed, Green uncovered the efforts of white parents to keep their children away from black students.

Racial segregation has not always been at the forefront of Green’s mind. “It took me becoming a reporter to become interested in race and my town’s history,” she said.

By the time Green was working for the San Diego Union/Tribune in 2001, she said she had become a more empathetic person. She made friends who weren’t white and met her future, multi-racial husband.

Her interest in the history of her hometown was piqued after reading a Washington Post article that featured the stories of Prince Edward County students who were shut out of school in the 1950s and early 1960s. “They were stories that I had never heard or even imagined,” Green said.

These stories inspired Green to explore how people were affected by the closing of public schools in Prince Edward County, an exploration that would lead to her best-selling book. Green said her reporting credentials as a journalist and personal connection put her in the ideal position to write this book. “I understood how that town operated, how white people there thought,” she said.

As Green researched and interviewed, she became a part of the story itself after discovering that her grandfather was a founding member of a group dedicated to preventing local school integration.

Learning that, she was “crushed,” but she knew she had to hold her own grandfather accountable to be fair, she said.

“I knew that it was people just like him — quiet, respectable, businessmen — who were responsible for denying education to a whole population of children,” she said.

Green was told that her grandfather acted as was expected at the time, but she continues to see ample examples of racial mistreatment today. She pointed to recent news stories, including a police officer using a Taser on a black 11-year old girl for allegedly stealing from a store.

“People say ‘this isn’t America,’” Green said. “As a matter of fact, it’s exactly who America has always been. During World War II, American officials rounded up people of Japanese descent and sent them to internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor.”

Green said the first step in moving forward is acknowledging the past.

“We have done all these things in our past, and many Americans deeply regret these decisions,” she said. But there are still people who don’t want to talk about these mistakes.

“I got a lot of push-back in my hometown,” Green said. “American schools don’t do a great job educating children about the difficult history of the U.S..”

According to Green, many want to just move on from these periods in the country’s past rather than dealing with shameful parts of its history. “Something about the American culture causes us to repress that shame,” Green said. “The answer to our racial problems is not some big ‘mea culpa.’ It’s only through daily actions that implicit bias begins to fade and we can move our country in a different direction.”

Green’s Wednesday night lecture was followed on Thursday and Friday by question-and-answer sessions with students that allowed them to further explore her research and work.