Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County

by Kristen Green
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Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County Characters

The main characters in Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County include Kristen Green, Elsie Lancaster, and Barbara Rose Johns.

  • Kristen Green is the author and narrator of the book. She is a journalist who returns to her hometown of Farmville, Virginia, to understand her town's and her family's complicated history.
  • Elsie Lancaster was Kristen Green's nanny. When Farmville closed its public schools in 1959, Elsie was forced to send her own daughter away but continued working for Kristen's family.
  • Barbara Rose Johns was a student at Farmville's Moton High School who led a historic strike against segregation in the schools in 1951.

Characters

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1964

Kristen Green

The character of the author, Kristen Green, is the thread tying together all the chapters of Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle . Kristen’s narrative is honest, and she takes care to share her own dilemmas and...

(The entire section contains 1964 words.)

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Kristen Green

The character of the author, Kristen Green, is the thread tying together all the chapters of Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle. Kristen’s narrative is honest, and she takes care to share her own dilemmas and discoveries with the reader. She begins with memories of being a happy, much-loved child who adored her grandparents and was accustomed to being cared for by their housemaid, Elsie. Her growth into adulthood is marked by a number of discoveries, some of which are sharply painful, like finding out that her maternal grandfather, Samuel Cecil Patteson, or “Papa” as she knew him, was not a passive bystander but one of the people who actively resisted integration in public schools following the Brown v. Board of Education ruling about segregation in schools being unconstitutional. This resistance by the white community in Farmville led to the establishment of the Prince Edward Academy, a whites-only private school. Kristen acknowledges her love for Papa and her grandmother, whom she called Mimi, right at the start of the book. But she also reveals how she has returned to Farmville, Virginia, a changed person who wants to understand her own and the town’s history.

I had changed. By then, I had lived outside the South for nearly a decade and traveled extensively. After college I moved to Oregon, then California, before crisscrossing the country again, bound for Massachusetts . . . I had worked as a reporter since graduating from college, focusing my efforts on people of color and the poor, those that newspapers tend to overlook.

Kristen’s falling in love with and later marrying a multiracial partner and having daughters for whom she wants a diverse, inclusive milieu reveal the struggles of parenting and trying to strike a work-life balance. Her growing awareness comes through as a series of valuable turning points, one of which happens when she is at Mary Washington College and writing for The Bullet, the college paper. Her professor, Steve Watkins, chides her for assuming that people who sound “nice” are also “good.”

Watkins’s lesson would still resonate twenty years later. Prince Edward County’s leaders were well-mannered Southern gentlemen. They had also closed the schools. Nice doesn’t mean good.

A haunting sense of loss, as she unravels more and more of the struggles of Farmville’s “Lost Generation,” pervades Kristen’s efforts through a large part of the book. She and her husband have chosen to return to Virginia after having lived a happy enough life in Boston with their two infant daughters. Not only do they move to Richmond, but Kristen also rents a home in Farmville for a summer to continue research and interviews for her book. She is determined to look beyond the story she “grew up believing” and answer the question that has remained at the back of her mind: “What is wrong with my hometown?” It is when she has gone to attend a service at the First Baptist Church and is hearing her childhood nanny, Elsie Lancaster, sing that she feels the loss most acutely.

For thirty-five years I have known only a few blacks in my hometown. I never participated in their cultural events. I didn’t have black friends, black teachers, or black neighbors.
My cheeks wet with tears, I am mourning what could have been, not just for me, but for this community.

Elsie Lancaster

Elsie Lancaster represents the link between the author’s family and the town of Farmville. At the very beginning of the book, Elsie’s neat, punctual, dependable personality and the central place it had in the lives of Kristen and her siblings is established. A woman who hummed and sang as she worked, Elsie represented unconditional affection and care for Kristen and her brothers and sister.

I grew up thinking of her as our Elsie, not as someone’s mother. She was the black woman who had cleaned my parents’ house once a week since 1975. She had worked for my grandparents for two decades before that. Until I was in high school, she was also the only black person I knew.

Elsie was the daughter of the chef at the all-male Hampden-Sydney College, one of seven siblings, whose parents owned a home and television in the 1930s. Although she graduated from high school, she got married immediately after to a man seven years her senior. She spent some years at home with her baby daughter, Gwen, before beginning to do housework as a substitute for her mother-in-law. When she chose to continue working as a maid, it was a decision Elsie made in defiance of her husband’s wishes, which were that she stay at home. However, this independent gesture was made within the context of a much larger oppressive structure. Although Elsie faced no ill-treatment at the homes where she worked, her social status was clearly different from that of her clients, and she was always mindful of the boundaries.

When an adult Kristen turns up at her church to hear her sing, Elsie is somewhat uncomfortable. But later, when Kristen’s four- and five-year-old daughters laugh and hug Elsie as they drop her off at her home, she warms up to them wholeheartedly. Elsie’s attachment to children is poignant because she had to sacrifice the presence of her own daughter, Gwen, in her home. Gwen was sent away to Massachusetts to stay with her aunt’s family when the Farmville public schools were closed in 1959. Gwen later refused to return, making her childhood a time of loneliness and deprivation for Elsie. But Elsie has such a loving heart for children that she combed Kristen’s mother’s and her aunt Beverly Anne’s hair in place of Gwen’s with no trace of bitterness or resentment.

There is a telling contrast between the socially inferior status Elsie occupies by reasons of race in the Virginia of the 1950s and her generosity of spirit. Elsie was fully aware that Papa, or Dr. S. C. Patteson, was one of the movers of the campaign to close the public schools and open a private academy only for white children. Yet she continued to work at his home. It was after he died that a relationship more akin to friendship developed between his wife, called Mimi, and Elsie. When Mimi passed away, Elsie attended the service in a church where, in 1963, black students who attempted to enter it were turned away and later arrested.

Barbara Rose Johns

Barbara Rose Johns was a junior at Moton High School when she led and organized the strike by black students that led to Prince Edward County becoming a part of the historic Brown v. Board of Education case in 1952. Born in New York, Barbara moved to Prince Edward County as a toddler and later attended Moton High School, which was only for black students, just as Farmville High School was only for whites. This segregation, justified by its supporters as “separate but equal,” actually had awful practical implications, as Barbara observed. As a child who was a voracious reader of books and had a keen intelligence, she noticed the facilities for the white children were vastly different from those available to her and her fellow students at Moton. Even when new classrooms were added to address the overcrowding in Moton High School, they were “Flimsy, wood-framed tar paper shacks that reeked of petroleum and leaked when it rained.” With a single school bus for the whole school, students had to be picked up in separate runs, and some arrived too late to attend the first class.

Barbara decided something needed to be done about these conditions when she missed her bus one morning and had the added indignity of watching the Farmville High School bus pass her by, half-empty. She made contact with John Stokes, who was the president of the senior class, and his sister Carrie, and told them she thought students should go on strike to demand a new school building and better facilities at Moton. A born leader, Barbara was able to convince the seniors, who were impressed by her determination and fearlessness. The famous student strike of April 23, 1951, was a secret that students kept from their teachers until it unfolded from the auditorium of Moton High School, where Barbara addressed the students.

Barbara called on her classmates to stay out of school until Moton High School was improved. She told them that the Farmville jail wasn’t big enough to hold all of them. As she marched out of the auditorium and out of the overcrowded school, 450 students followed.

Following this historic strike, Barbara wrote to Oliver W. Hill Sr., the lawyer for the NAACP, and asked for his help. Hill was then much in demand for cases all over the South, and he had decided to ask the Moton students to go on back to their classes after having made their point for improving the school with their strike. However, he was not prepared for what would happen when he met the Prince Edward County students and their parents on his way to another meeting. At the meeting, Barbara’s determination and passion convinced him that Prince Edward County should be added to the clutch of cases that the NAACP was then filing for desegregation in Delaware, South Carolina, Kansas, and Washington, D.C. Barbara Rose Johns’s grit, and her refusal to bow down to people and circumstances that seemed daunting, took the cause of Prince Edward County students to the national stage.

Robert E. Taylor

Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle begins with Kristen Green’s interview with Robert E. Taylor, the founder of the Prince Edward Academy. At the age of eighty-seven, breathing from an oxygen cylinder and tended to by a black nurse, Taylor is still offering the old justifications for segregation, including his anti-miscegenation views and stereotypes about the behavior of black men.

Dr. S. C. Patteson and Chuck Green

At various points in the book, Kristen Green speculates about the character of both her grandfather, Dr. Patteson, and her father, Chuck Green. She has no way of knowing exactly what would have been their views on desegregation, and she is saddened by her grandfather being a part of the “Defenders” who upheld segregation and white privilege. She draws comfort from the fact that nearly half the patients at her father’s dental practice were black. She also knows that her father had told her grandfather that admitting black students to the Prince Edward Academy was the right thing to do before the latter recommended him for a seat on its board.

L. Frances Griffin

The indefatigable L. Frances Griffin, preacher at the First Baptist Church, stepped in to fill the void caused by the closure of the Prince Edward County public schools in 1959. He arranged for some students to attend Kittrell College in North Carolina and carried news of Farmville on weekends to bring those students some comfort. He arranged training centers that sought to give students an alternative foundation for their later lives. He wrote to Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon during the presidential election campaign of 1960, asking for their plans to address the situation in Prince Edward County. He continued to exert an enormous influence on students of the “Lost Generation” who had been shut out of school. Griffin was elected to state leadership of the NAACP in 1962. He is seen as an anchor and wise elder throughout the book, one who ensured the struggle for integration stayed nonviolent even as students protested against Farmville businesses and carried placards about their lost years of education.

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