Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Q&A with P. O'Connell Pearson




P. O'Connell Pearson is the author of the new book for older kids We Are Your Children Too: Black Students, White Supremacists, and the Battle for America's Schools in Prince Edward County, Virginia. It focuses on events in the 1950s and '60s. Her other books include Conspiracy. A former history teacher, she lives in the City of Fairfax, Virginia.


Q: What inspired you to write We Are Your Children Too?


A: In early 2020 I was looking for a new topic. I’m always drawn to stories that have connections to civics and citizenship with meaning for today. I’d thought about several possibilities but wasn’t enthusiastic.


Then I came across a book on Prince Edward County. I knew what had happened there, but not in any detail. As I read, I quickly realized that this story had all the connections I look for. More than that, it touched the great upset I’d been feeling about the ugly, overt racism being reported in the current news.


I started doing some research and soon decided that more people, especially young people, should know the Prince Edward story as history and example. 


Q: The Kirkus review of the book says, in part, “This is a detailed and dramatic depiction, rich in context, of the price a small community paid for seeking equality. It demonstrates the resilience of those who fought segregation while never downplaying how much was lost, and it provides evidence of ways the damage continues to have an impact today.” What do you think of that description, and how would you compare the era you write about to the education and racial battles of today?


A: I appreciate the Kirkus review description. I think it summarizes the book accurately and reflects what I wanted the book to accomplish. The Prince Edward County story is ongoing and it’s important to tie what happened then to today, not just for the people involved in the history, but because we all need to see that the effects of discrimination are multigenerational. It’s something our nation needs to address more fully.


Certainly, society has changed in many ways since the 1950s and ‘60s, including our attitudes and actions surrounding education and race. Then, a small group of White men were able to shut down the local public school system. They weren’t hesitant to say publicly that they would rather their children had no education than go to school with Black children. That’s an unlikely thing now. And of course, official segregation is illegal today.


Even so, there’s a step forward/step back flow to whatever progress we’ve made in the last 70 years. In many places, schools are segregated today because of long-embedded racism in housing, mortgage lending, employment, and more. That racism leaves us with de facto segregation in neighborhoods and therefore in schools, something that’s difficult to repair effectively.


In other areas, we see progress in school integration and in greater diversity in elected and business leadership and so on. But we also see an unfortunate resurgence of racism with everything from voter suppression to subtly racist language from public officials. Overt racism now plagues us, too, with White supremacist groups going very public.


In both eras, self-serving people have acted on their own and others’ human insecurities. They encourage fear—fear of otherness, fear of losing status or power, fear that our children will be “indoctrinated.” They use that fear to further their own ends. Whether they do this openly or very subtly, they are using fear as a tool.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The title comes from Barbara Johns. Years after the 1951 strike, she wrote, “And then there were times—I just prayed­—‘God please grant us a new school. Please let us have a warm place to stay where we won’t have to keep our coats on all day to stay warm. God, please help us. We are you children, too.’”


Barbara Johns was praying when she said that. But it struck me that the last sentence held a second meaning. Weren’t she and the other Black students Prince Edward County’s children? To me, that’s an important piece. Johns and the others were not asking for anything beyond what was rightfully theirs. There was no plausible argument against them. No “other side” of the question. And that’s still true now.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: Unfortunately, I had to do most of the research during the pandemic lockdown. We are so fortunate to have internet resources and so on, but I would have liked to go visit Prince Edward County and meet people early on.


Instead, I relied on some wonderful websites, including the Moton Museum’s site, university sites, and the Library of Congress and National Archives. I also used academic books and online academic papers as well as firsthand accounts in memoirs and collected interviews. I piggybacked on the very good work of scholars and journalists to whom I’m grateful.


I was also able to speak by phone or email with several of the men and women who were part of the strike or the closings. They were wonderfully kind and supportive. Theirs are difficult stories to share, and I appreciate their courage. And I was finally able to visit the area as the pandemic eased.


I knew very little about the story when I started, so in some sense everything was surprising.


For example, I had never thought about the faculty at Moton High School and the other county schools for Black students. They were highly qualified and respected, and formed the backbone of the Black middle class there.


When the schools closed, most White teachers went to work at the newly formed White academy. Black teachers lost their livelihoods. And I was overwhelmed by the lengths so many families went to in order to educate their children. I am in awe of them.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Nothing definite at the moment, though I’m doing some reading and early writing for a possible next book. I like stories of seemingly ordinary people who do extraordinary things.


In this case, I’m looking back at the women from over a hundred years ago who stepped out of their comfort zones to find solutions to the problems they saw in their own communities. This was before they could vote, yet these women changed the United States in extraordinary ways.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’m amazed that I’m doing what I’m doing these days. I always wanted to write but… and then I did. I’d tell anyone who loves writing to keep at it and look for ways to open doors. Also, I like talking about history as much as I like writing about it, so I’m always eager to do book talks or presentations. You can find me at poconnellpearson@gmail.com or https://www.poconnellpearson.com.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb



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