Kristen Green grew up in Virginia tobacco country in a small town called Farmville. She’s too young to have been around for the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but she knew that the Prince Edward County public schools had been closed for a time during those years and that the courts were involved. She didn’t know what actually happened because no one ever talked about it.
“I only knew the roughest of outlines, and I had a lot of the details wrong,” Green says. “I attended this segregated academy—called Prince Edward Academy—for my whole childhood. I knew there was a reason that it was started, but I don’t think I fully knew the reason behind why the leaders started it.”
In the 1950s, Prince Edward County—as elsewhere in Virginia and the rest of the South—was almost completely segregated. Blacks and whites had separate churches and neighborhoods, separate water fountains and restrooms, even separate lakes at the state park. The schools were also separate and nowhere close to equal—the black schools were overcrowded and poorly maintained compared to the white schools.
The all-white school board paid little more than lip service to years of complaints, and in 1951 a student at the black Moton High School named Barbara Rose Johns staged a walkout. The NAACP filed suit and asked a federal judge to declare that the separate schools denied educational opportunities to some students on the basis of their race. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court.
In Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 decision that struck down segregation in public schools, the Supreme Court unanimously found that “separate but equal” wasn’t “equal”; it was an unconstitutional denial of black students’ equal protection under the law. Although the Brown decision is remembered now as a challenge against the school system in Topeka, Kansas, it was actually a consolidation of five cases including the one from Prince Edward County, Virginia.
Rather than heed the Supreme Court’s decision, Prince Edward County went around it. If public schools must be segregated, then there will be no public schools. And a few years later, there weren’t. The white students moved over to Prince Edward Academy. The black students had no real alternative; some moved in with family out of state, some attended a nearby black college that had a program for high school students, and some just didn’t go to school.
Green’s new book, Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County, is both a captivating and surprising new work of civil rights history—the story of a town that chose to shut down its public school rather than desegregate them—and a memoir of Green’s complicated reckoning with what she discovered. Among the revelations she came across in her research is the fact that her beloved grandfather was one of the proponents and founders of the all-white school.
“It seems strange in hindsight that I didn’t know the details,” Green says. “For me, the biggest struggle of writing the book was that I couldn’t figure out why people didn’t want to talk about it. I think there’s some shame and guilt that goes so deep that people can’t really acknowledge it. That’s the best answer I’ve been able to come up with after spending all this time working on it.”
Green has spent most of her career as a reporter at various newspapers around the country. After years of wondering about the details of what happened in her hometown after Brown v. Board of Education, she moved back to her hometown two years ago to work full-time on the book.
The early buzz has been strong: starred reviews in Kirkus and Booklist, Southern Living’s book of the month, and it’s one of Amazon’s best books of the month.
“I’m getting a lot of support from folks who are about my age [early 40s] who are super supportive of this story coming out,” Green says. “Some of them have told me that until they got the book they didn’t support the project, that they didn’t understand what I had to say about it. But I’m getting a lot of support from people who went to the public school and from people who went to the Academy.”
Scott Porch is an attorney and contributes to Kirkus Reviews and The Daily Beast. He is writing a book about social upheaval in the 1960s and '70s.