My dad was born a hundred years ago this May in Virginia’s rural Prince Edward County. The stories he told when I was a kid tended toward humorous character sketches: his father sneaking penny firecrackers into the hearth on Christmas afternoon; his mother and aunt arguing over fingernail clippings flying across the kitchen into the biscuit batter. He also recalled helping his father build a car from parts. They drove it to upstate New York and back, though it was fully “open” – with no body at all. When I asked how old a boy had to be to drive back then, he said, “Well – old enough for your legs to reach the pedals…”
Now I wish I had asked my dad a lot more questions, especially related to the history of the times – how it was, what it felt like. He was born 51 years after the death of Lincoln, which is less removed than we are now from President Kennedy. There was one story he told me when I was older, and though he could fill a room with his big bass voice, in this case he spoke softly. He grew up with more black playmates than white. His family was middle class for the times and I gather they had “help” around the house. He was George, Junior and everyone called him June. One day when he was around 13, the African-American adults who had known him all his life and even his playmates stopped calling him June. He became “Mister June”. Clearly, this was a painful memory for him. I saw in it also what we comic book readers call an origin story. It helped me understand why, for as long as I knew my dad, he leaned into the civil rights movement.
The delineation of white and black people remained important to those in power in Prince Edward County and in 1959, with school integration the new law of the land, the public schools were closed. A private academy was opened for white students from families of means. Black children, and poorer white ones, had to look beyond the county for schooling – or stay at home.
My dad was in Richmond growing a family by then. I don’t recall him talking about the situation, but I was a little kid. I do remember Sunday drives to Prince Edward. We’d visit a few elderly relatives and former neighbors of his, and then we’d drop in on younger families with whom I couldn’t make a connection. Looking back, I can imagine them as the progressive folks and clergy-types toward whom my parents seemed to gravitate. I can imagine that as I played on an outdoor swing set, the discussion inside could have been labeled: Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County.
Kristen Green, author of the 2015 book by that title, grew up there, too, about 60 years behind my dad. She graduated from Prince Edward Academy in the early 1980s, aware that her grandfather had been instrumental in its founding. But there was much about the county’s story she did not know, and as an adult and a journalist, she returned home to confront its past. She learned of her family’s deeper involvement in Massive Resistance – the anti-integration movement – and she uncovered at least a book full of heart wrenching stories from black families who lived through those times. And as Ms. Green wrote in a Times-Dispatch op-ed last month, she sees disturbing similarities in Prince Edward County’s unwillingness to fund quality education for all its children in the last century and the priorities of our own city leaders now.
Kristen Green will be in our Fellowship Hall this Sunday morning at 9:30 for a Q&A session moderated by our own A.B. (Anne) Westrick, author of Brotherhood. I’ll be there, and I’ll take a moment to imagine saving two chairs for my parents. They helped found the Peace Forum in that same room some 30 years ago and if they were still on the planet, they’d be at this event in a Richmond minute. But I think they’ll have a great view regardless, and I know they’d want to share those seats.
I hope you can come.
Alfred Walker manages our Telling Our Stories blog. He tries not to feature himself here too often, but he is also a member of our Communications Team and has been working to get the word out about Kristen Green’s visit this Sunday at 9:30 a.m. in the Fellowship Hall.