Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County

by Kristen Green

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In Something Must be Done About Prince Edward County, by Kristen Green, we learn about the author's experience attending the all-white Prince Edward Academy in Virginia in the 1970s and 1980s. In an effort to come to terms with her alma mater's murky history of racism, Green returns to her hometown in 2006 to research the history of segregation in Prince Edward County.

Green discovers that, beginning in the 1930s, very few African American children were granted the opportunity to pursue a full K–12 education in Prince Edward County. In fact, many students were taught informally at home, if at all. Finally, in 1939, an all-black high school was constructed, but the population soon outgrew the physical space.

By 1951, students and parents in Prince Edward County, weary of the conditions at the ramshackle high school, protested and demanded a new building. The protest snowballed and was soon taken over by the NAACP, who filed a suit to desegregate schools in the area. The Supreme Court made the Prince Edward case part of the broader Brown v. Board of Education case in 1952. In 1954, even as the Supreme Court ruled against segregation, whites in Virginia, including the author's grandfather, were doing everything they could to prevent racial mixing in schools.

By 1959, an appellate court caught up with the district and ordered them to abide by the law. Instead, authorities shut down the public school system entirely. This meant that only wealthy white children could attend school, while African American and poor white kids did not have the opportunity to attend school at all. Some African American parents sued the school district in 1961, but it wasn't until 1964 that public schools were actually reopened. In 1984, the Prince Edward Academy finally declared that it would allow all students, regardless of race, to apply. Even so, the percentage of students of color in the Academy, even today, is appallingly low.

Green struggles to understand how her grandfather (whom she refers to as "Papa" in the book) could be both the kind and loving man she knew as a child and also a racist intent on maintaining segregation. Green also interviews the family's maid, Elsie, who helped raise Green's mother. Elsie has a daughter of her own, Gwen, whom Green remembers being "one of the smartest kids in her class."

Because Gwen is black, she would never have been permitted to attend the Academy, so Elsie made the painful decision to send her daughter to live with relatives in New England, where she could receive a proper eduction. Most African American children did not have the opportunity to go elsewhere for an education, so many of those children grew up lacking the skills necessary for pursuing a successful life. This is the legacy that segregation has left in Prince Edward County.

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