Unmistakable progress

Published 3:25 pm Thursday, November 19, 2015

In early June, as Kristen Green celebrated the release of a memoir that trashed her hometown, the people of Farmville and Prince Edward County quietly, but emphatically, refuted one of the author’s central premises: that 21st century Farmville remains an overtly racist place.

It’s been said, aptly, that a man’s character is best revealed by what he does when no one’s looking. Prince Edward voters — white and black — went into the privacy of the voting booth that Tuesday in May and wrote an important new chapter of local history with the nomination of impressive young Megan Clark as the county’s first black commonwealth’s attorney, a decision ratified in the general election, where she was unopposed earlier this month. A county where African-Americans compose just a third of the population now has three black constitutional officers and four black supervisors on an eight-member governing board.

Impressively, Clark beat a popular white man in that June primary by never mentioning race in a town that, by Green’s account, is still consumed by its racist past.

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In “Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County,” Green writes dramatically of a summer 2013 day in Farmville: “Walking the streets, I notice a tension hangs in the heavy summer air. People seem angry.”

Those of us who walk the streets of Farmville daily — instead of for a couple of months, as Green did, to find anecdotes to support a preconceived, and flawed, narrative — know just how preposterous is the notion that Farmville seethes with anger. The only discontent one sees in a typical stroll down Main Street in Farmville is mild irritation by the white motorist who can’t find a quarter for the parking meter, only to be bailed out by a sweet black woman who hands him a coin and shuffles on down the sidewalk.

That’s a real and recent anecdote just as powerful as Green’s interview with a dying segregationist, whose impenitence, the reader is led to believe, define modern-day Farmville. Green’s portrayal of a still-angry Farmville some six decades after the closure of its public schools to prevent integration is as misguided as those who say we’re completely over it. No community is. But few places have done as much as Farmville and Prince Edward to make amends and move forward. The recent election results continued to redefine a town that becomes more colorblind with every passing day.   

As Green makes her literary victory lap in a community she insulted on a national stage, town, county and college leaders should give her credit where it’s due — for a well-written history lesson and entertaining, sometimes moving, memoir — but show some courage and call her out for a shameful portrayal of a community that has rebuked the sins of generations dying or gone, that has honored the victims of those sins, and that forges ahead, mindful of, but not forever shackled by, its racist past.

STEVE STEWART is publisher of The Farmville Herald. He is a veteran publisher of community newspapers throughout the South and led racial-reconciliation efforts in his native state of Mississippi. In 2005, he was the first John Emmerich/Reuters Fellow at the University of Oxford in England, where he studied the role of newspapers in race relations. His email address is steve.stewart@farmvilleherald.com.