BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, June 2015
Kristen Green was born to write this book.
Growing up in the 1970s in Farmville, Virginia, she attended an all-white academy founded in 1959 by her beloved grandparents and others when white town leaders closed the public schools rather than comply with federal desegregation orders. Farmville’s schools remained shut for five years, depriving 1,700 black children (and some white children) of an education.
“During my childhood,” Green writes, “my family rarely discussed what had happened, and only in broad strokes.”
After leaving Farmville, she became a reporter and married a man of Native-American descent, with whom she has two daughters (one named Selma). When her young family finally settled in Richmond, Virginia, Green began researching Farmville’s troubled past.
The result of her investigation, Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County, deftly interweaves the personal and the historical into a compelling narrative that leaves no stone unturned. Green writes as only an insider can, with the added benefit of being a skilled journalist and the mother of multiracial children.
Her account is not only fascinating but cinematic, with scenes such as the day in 1951 when 16-year-old Barbara Rose Johns organized her classmates to strike in protest of dismal conditions in Farmville’s black high school. Their dissent resulted in a lawsuit that later went to the U.S. Supreme Court as part of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.
Green also writes about her family’s adored housekeeper, Elsie, who sent her only child to be educated in Massachusetts after the Farmville schools closed. Although Elsie’s daughter refused to be interviewed, Green concludes with her own apology to Elsie for wounds of the past.
This is an award-worthy book and an eye-opening companion to other accounts of past injustices like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It’s hard to imagine how events like these transpired not so long ago. Nonetheless, tremendous racial problems continue to plague us, and Green’s powerful book can help to promote much-needed dialogue, remembrance and understanding.