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Writing Locally, Thinking Globally
By Jody Rathgeb
The subtitle of Kristen Green’s Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County outlines the book’s focus: “A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle.” Her mixture of history and memoir is a fascinating and significant work in part because it maintains that tight focus, bringing in the larger background of the Civil Rights Movement and racial prejudice only as it affects or applies to the people at the center of her true-life drama.
Sometimes, though, the place where you read something has a bearing on what you learn from the book. If I had read Green while at home in Richmond, Va., not far from its events in Farmville, I might not have seen its intersection with parts of the world far away. Reading Something Must Be Done on North Caicos Island led me to conclusions about education and prejudice that go beyond Green’s indictment of the American South.
What struck me in particular was an odd parallel. Green tells us that when Prince Edward County closed its public schools rather than integrate them, the black children who were shut out of that education for years were in some cases sent off to other places where they could be taught. She describes how families were pulled apart and educations took backward steps as youngsters sent to live with relatives or guardians in other states dealt with homesickness and new environments as well as the struggle to learn.
That resonated with what I know of North Caicos history. This island did not have a high school until 1973, when Raymond Gardiner High School was founded in the town of Bottle Creek. Parents who wanted their children to have a secondary education would send them to Grand Turk, the seat of government for the Turks and Caicos Islands. As the two islands are about 60 miles apart, parents found relatives or other guardians and paid Grand Turk families to house and feed their children.
I asked some North Caicos residents about the experience of being sent away to school. The conversations would invariably start with a shake of the head. “I hated it,” said Addison Forbes, who with his sister Loleta was sent to live with some distant cousins of his mother.
Forbes and others explained that there has long been a clash between Grand Turk and North Caicos islanders. Grand Turk, as the center of British interests in its overseas territory, was developed sooner and had economic priority due to its early salt industry. People from the Caicos islands (including North, South and Providenciales) were primarily farmers and fishermen. “They called us ‘corn crackers,’” said Forbes, pointing out that bread made with flour, available on Grand Turk, was deemed superior to johnnycakes from hand-ground hominy.
Clifford Gardiner also recalls how the Grand Turk people would look down on the Caicos country folk, and says the young girls arriving for school where taken advantage of. “The guys would watch them get off the plane and make comments. ‘That one, there,’ they’d say. These were young girls, 14, 15 years old and they didn’t know. Lots of them were downright raped, and they never said anything about it.”
Once there, the students sometimes had to cope with abuse from their guardian families or become the last in a large family to get food, even though their parents were paying the guardians for the children’s keep. Pocket money sent from home was taken.
“My mother would send over grits and all these good fruits that grow on North Caicos, but we wouldn’t get it,” said Forbes, noting the irony that the Grand Turk people weren’t above enjoying the foods that agrarian North Caicos produced. “I got a job so that Loleta and I could live a little better.” The job added to his distraction at school, where teachers had low expectations of Caicos children. He dropped out, going to sea with a relative, although Loleta finished school.
Listening to these men, I thought about the similarity with black children in America’s public school system and noted that intra-racial prejudice was not much different from interracial.
The stories are similar to those about the restaveks of Haiti, children who are sent as domestic servants to others who are better off and can afford school fees, but some of whom treat their charges as slaves or worse. In the Middle East and Asia, the Taliban and other extremist groups refuse to let girls receive an education. Their actions are hardly based on beliefs; it is simply sexual prejudice. Tearing apart families for even a basic education is not new and not exclusive to the American South of the Civil Rights era.
The good news is that some young people can survive and even thrive despite these unhappy times. Clifford Gardiner’s family couldn’t afford to send him to Grand Turk, yet he achieved his dream of flying and became the first Turks and Caicos islander to become a commercial pilot. Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan survived the Taliban attack on her and inspires others.
I don’t mean to trivialize Kristen Green’s thesis. Massive Resistance in Virginia was indeed unnecessarily harmful to generations of Prince Edward County’s residents, including her own family in denial. But roadblocks to education exist everywhere and come from many sources, and not everyone can see the value of learning. Those who have to fight for education just might value it a little bit more.
#Real #Segregation #EducationGap #TearingApartFamily #PrinceEdward #NorthCaicos #DefyingOdds #Struggle
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