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Former San Diego Journalist Traces Civil Rights Battle

Book cover, "Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County"

Former San Diego Journalist Traces Civil Rights Battle
Former San Diego Journalist Traces Civil Rights Battle In Her Hometown GUEST: Kristen Green, author, “Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County”

One lesser-known stories one small town in Virginia decided to defy the ruling. Something -- it's told in the new book "Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County". I'm joined by the author of that book Kristen Green. She's a former San Diego journalist. You were raised in a small town called Farmville in Prince Edward County Virginia. Were you familiar with this part of your hometown's history? Only vaguely, I grew up not knowing the story of what had happened. I attended as segregation County school. My parents had attended a school that was founded by white leaders including my grandparents. I knew I went to school that was only attended by white children, I didn't know the back story. Take us back, after the Supreme Court ruled the segregation of public schools was unconstitutional, how did print Edward -- Prince Edward County react to come up with a private all-white Academy? I'm going to back up, in 1951 a 16-year-old girl Barbara Johns had led a walkout of her black high school to protest the conditions. Her walkout followed by the other students at this black high school attracted the attention of the NAACP attorneys in Richmond. They came to me with the students and agreed to take on the case. Only of students were willing to seek desegregation, rather than equal facilities. The students agreed in the suit moved forward. That suit was filed on behalf of students and families became one of five cases. I think officials were embarrassed by being put in the national spotlight. That was the precursor to what happened with the decision. The Brown decision, Virginia acted with dismay and pushed back the decision. Officials in Prince Edward County within six months announced they would do whatever it took to avoid desegregating schools, even if it meant closing them. Public schools remain closed for five years. How did this affect black children and families in Prince Edward County? 1700 black children were shut out of school when schools closed. Some children, were able to go way to school, they went to live with family members in adjacent counties. Someone to live with strangers in the north, kind people who agreed to take in children so they could get an education and live with. The vast majority stayed home, older kids ended up going to work in the fields with their parents. Younger kids stayed home and played. This book, "Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County" is part history and part memoir. Was it easy to get your family to talk about this? My parents were very kind and agreed to talk to me. I'm sure they didn't know exactly where this was going. My grandfather was dead when I started work on the book and my grandmother was dying. In some ways, that made it easier and harder. Easier that I didn't have to face them, but harder because I would never hear their story about why this was important to them. It was interesting for my family, because in the process I found out really interesting things about my grandfather's involvement and it went beyond just pounding the private academy an extended to being one of the group members that called for the closing of the schools. How did the story resolve itself? How did public schools get back in it took another Supreme Court decision in 1964 to reopen the schools. Why do you think this story hasn't received as much attention as some of the other stories I reference, of other communities in the South during the civil rights era? I think many of those stories came across over the television. The extreme violence attracted the media attention in a way that this quiet, legal battle did not. What is Prince Edward County like today? You talked about the legacy of this incident back in the 50s. Things have gotten better. Mouton high school which Barbara Johns walked out of is now a beautiful civil rights Museum and in some ways, I felt the heart of the community, it certainly was the heart of the book. They are doing so much out which -- reach to tell stories and acknowledge each other stories. It's helping to move the community forward and it's a much more integrated place than it was when I was a child.

There are famous stories about school desegregation after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education.

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In the years following that 1954 case, riots broke out in Tennessee. The Arkansas National Guard was called out to protect black students in Little Rock and Gov. George Wallace tried to block African-American students from entering the University of Alabama.

But one lesser-known story reveals the scope of courage and the deep discrimination that were the hallmarks of that time.

Kristen Green, a former reporter at The San Diego Union-Tribune, tells that story in "Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County."

Part history and part memoir, the book explores how a small town in Virginia — where Green grew up — defied desegregation by shutting down all public schools. As a result, all-white private schools were established, leaving black families little recourse.

Green went to such a school, whose founders in 1959 included her grandparents.

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“I knew that I went to a school that was only attended by white children, but I didn't know any of the backstory about what had happened well before I was born,” Green told KPBS Midday Edition on Monday.

By the time she was writing the book, Green’s grandfather had died and her grandmother was dying.

“It made it easier — easier that I didn't have to face them,” she said. “But harder because I would never be able to hear their story about why this was important to them.”

Dean Hoffmeyer
Kristen Green, author, "Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County"

Green said years later, public schools in Prince Edward County continue to struggle.

“It’s certainly a much more integrated place than it was when I was a child,” she said. “There's still work to be done, of course. … There's still much work to be done to bring schools up to the level and to try and make up lost ground.”

Green is scheduled to appear at a book signing event at Warwick's in La Jolla Monday at 7:30 p.m.