They Closed Their Schools

by Jess

*Post updated.

I went to high school in Prince Edward County.  Lucky me.  They fancy themselves the Heart of Virginia, but really, it’s a terrible place.  The county seat is Farmville (and no, I’m not talking about the Facebook app.)  In 2007, 20.3 percent of the population lived below the poverty level, compared to only 9.9 percent in the state of Virginia.  NCES estimates that 16 percent of the population lacks basic prose literacy skills.

But the absolute worst part about Prince Edward County is its legacy of racism.  It touches every aspect of communal life in the area.

Maybe you’ve heard of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case which in 1954 overturned school segregation in the United States.  Well, in 1959 Prince Edward County closed all public schools rather than integrate them.  They remained closed for five years.  Prince Edward County was the only school district in the country to do this.  The community was torn so deeply and broken so completely, that they still haven’t gotten over it.

In American history, we had to read R.C. Smith’s They Closed Their Schools: Prince Edward County, Virginia, 1951-1964.  I think the title probably gives you a good idea of how interesting it was.  As a high schooler, I couldn’t understand why people couldn’t just move on, let it go, get over it.  Bygones and so forth.

Still, I noticed — who couldn’t? — the decided lack of black kids in my advanced classes.  It was puzzling — particularly because most of the white kids in advanced classes weren’t all that smart; they’d simply learned to work the system, to play the game.  I attended governor’s school for half the day, and during morning session, the handful of black kids there often sat at a table together.  Being half-Cuban, I would sit at the table with them, announcing loudly that it was the minority table and none of the white kids were allowed to sit there.  We had a hilarious time with the joke; it was the only way I knew of making a serious issue palatable, of stripping its power over us.

In Stuart Buck’s book Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation, Buck poses a hypothesis for the provenance of underperformance among black schoolkids: integration.  It seems Buck blames not integration itself so much as the way it was carried out in schools across the country, as black kids were bussed to white schools where they met with hatred, harassment, and — most damningly — “the soft prejudice of low expectations from racist teachers who assumed blacks weren’t capable and from liberals who coddled them.”  I haven’t yet read the book, but Richard Thompson Ford reviews it in Slate.

John McWhorter offers another thoughtful review in The New Republic, and further analysis of the “acting white” syndrome that derails black kids’ academic progress.  Reading about these issues now takes me back to my high school days, and I’m still left puzzled and perplexed, and I’ve yet to read any viable solutions.  But as McWhorter says, “Buck has cleared the ground of many illusions and innuendos, and this can only help us to get closer to a solution for the vast problem that still remains.”

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