Southern Stalemate: Five Years without Public Education in Prince Edward County, Virginia

University of Chicago Press
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In 1959, Virginia’s Prince Edward County closed its public schools rather than obey a court order to desegregate. For five years, black children were left to fend for themselves while the courts decided if the county could continue to deny its citizens public education. Investigating this remarkable and nearly forgotten story of local, state, and federal political confrontation, Christopher Bonastia recounts the test of wills that pitted resolute African Americans against equally steadfast white segregationists in a battle over the future of public education in America. Beginning in 1951 when black high school students protested unequal facilities and continuing through the return of whites to public schools in the 1970s and 1980s, Bonastia describes the struggle over education during the civil rights era and the human suffering that came with it, as well as the inspiring determination of black residents to see justice served. Artfully exploring the lessons of the Prince Edward saga, Southern Stalemate unearths new insights about the evolution of modern conservatism and the politics of race in America.
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About the author

Christopher Bonastia is associate professor of sociology at Lehman College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, as well as associate director of the Lehman Scholars Program and Macaulay Honors College at Lehman College. He is the author of Knocking on the Door: The Federal Government’s Attempt to Desegregate the Suburbs.
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Additional Information

Publisher
University of Chicago Press
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Published on
Jan 11, 2012
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Pages
352
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ISBN
9780226063911
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Language
English
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Genres
Education / History
History / General
History / United States / 20th Century
Social Science / Sociology / General
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This content is DRM protected.
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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

Combining hard-hitting investigative journalism and a sweeping family narrative, this provocative true story reveals a little-known chapter of American history: the period after the Brown v. Board of Education decision when one Virginia school system refused to integrate.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision, Virginia’s Prince Edward County refused to obey the law. Rather than desegregate, the county closed its public schools, locking and chaining the doors. The community’s white leaders quickly established a private academy, commandeering supplies from the shuttered public schools to use in their all-white classrooms. Meanwhile, black parents had few options: keep their kids at home, move across county lines, or send them to live with relatives in other states. For five years, the schools remained closed.

Kristen Green, a longtime newspaper reporter, grew up in Farmville and attended Prince Edward Academy, which did not admit black students until 1986. In her journey to uncover what happened in her hometown before she was born, Green tells the stories of families divided by the school closures and of 1,700 black children denied an education. As she peels back the layers of this haunting period in our nation’s past, her own family’s role—no less complex and painful—comes to light.

At once gripping, enlightening, and deeply moving, Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County is a dramatic chronicle that explores our troubled racial past and its reverberations today, and a timeless story about compassion, forgiveness, and the meaning of home.

On June 11, 1963, in a dramatic gesture that caught the nation's attention, Governor George Wallace physically blocked the entrance to Foster Auditorium on the University of Alabama's campus. His intent was to defy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, sent on behalf of the Kennedy administration to force Alabama to accept court-ordered desegregation. After a tense confrontation, President Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard and Wallace backed down, allowing Vivian Malone and James Hood to become the first African Americans to enroll successfully at their state's flagship university. That night, John F. Kennedy went on television to declare civil rights a "moral issue" and to commit his administration to this cause. That same night, Medgar Evers was shot dead. In The Schoolhouse Door, E. Culpepper Clark provides a riveting account of the events that led to Wallace's historic stand, tracing a tangle of intrigue and resistance that stretched from the 1940s, when the university rejected black applicants outright, to the post-Brown v. Board of Education era. We are there in July 1955 when Thurgood Marshall and lawyers at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund win for Autherine Lucy and "all similarly situated" the right to enroll at the university. We are in the car with Lucy in February 1956 as university officials escort her to class, shielding her from a mob jeering "Lynch the nigger," "Keep 'Bama white," and "hit the nigger whore." (After only three days, these demonstrations resulted in Lucy's expulsion.) Clark exposes the many means, including threats and intimidation, used by university and state officials to discourage black applicants following the Lucy episode. And he explains how University of Alabama president Frank Anthony Rose eventually cooperated with the Kennedy administration to ensure a smooth transition toward desegregation. We also witness Robert Kennedy's remarkable face-to-face plea for Wallace's cooperation and the governor's adamant refusal: "I will never submit voluntarily to any integration in a school system in Alabama." As Clark writes, Wallace's carefully orchestrated surrender would leave the forces of white supremacy free to fight another day. And the Kennedys' public embrace of the civil rights movement would set in motion a political transformation that changed the presidential base of the Democratic party for the next thirty years. In these pages, full of courageous black applicants, fist-shaking demonstrators, and powerful politicians, Clark captures the dramatic confrontations that transformed the University of Alabama into a proving ground for the civil rights movement and gave the nation unforgettable symbols for its struggle to achieve racial justice.
Read the news about America’s colleges and universities—rising student debt, affirmative action debates, and conflicts between faculty and administrators—and it’s clear that higher education in this country is a total mess. But as David F. Labaree reminds us in this book, it’s always been that way. And that’s exactly why it has become the most successful and sought-after source of learning in the world. Detailing American higher education’s unusual struggle for survival in a free market that never guaranteed its place in society—a fact that seemed to doom it in its early days in the nineteenth century—he tells a lively story of the entrepreneurial spirit that drove American higher education to become the best.

And the best it is: today America’s universities and colleges produce the most scholarship, earn the most Nobel prizes, hold the largest endowments, and attract the most esteemed students and scholars from around the world. But this was not an inevitability. Weakly funded by the state, American schools in their early years had to rely on student tuition and alumni donations in order to survive. This gave them tremendous autonomy to seek out sources of financial support and pursue unconventional opportunities to ensure their success. As Labaree shows, by striving as much as possible to meet social needs and fulfill individual ambitions, they developed a broad base of political and financial support that, grounded by large undergraduate programs, allowed for the most cutting-edge research and advanced graduate study ever conducted. As a result, American higher education eventually managed to combine a unique mix of the populist, the practical, and the elite in a single complex system.

The answers to today’s problems in higher education are not easy, but as this book shows, they shouldn’t be: no single person or institution can determine higher education’s future. It is something that faculty, administrators, and students—adapting to society’s needs—will determine together, just as they have always done.
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