Seeking “A Good Community”
(Image from ClipArt Library. Personal Use License)
The main plot of A Good Community, my work in progress, has to do with school segregation. In the 1800s, schools in New Jersey might be segregated (black children attended one school, white children attended another) or integrated (all children attended the same school). We have laws now in New Jersey against segregated schools – they cannot be purposely segregated.
When I was growing up in the 1960s, I heard a great deal of talk about certain towns that discouraged people of color from moving into upscale (or even middle-class) housing developments. “White flight,” or people of European heritage fleeing cities for the suburbs was common. Those African Americans who tried to move out of congested, decaying, and dangerous urban areas were met with resistance when they sought to make new homes in suburbia. Although it now is illegal to discourage potential home buyers of color, my state still has towns and locations that are primarily white and primarily black. And that means some schools still are primarily black or primarily white. So school segregation does exist in New Jersey but it is de facto segregation (segregation created by the concentration of one group of people) rather than de jure segregation (segregation established by law). So, we're still struggling with the issue.
In my novel, Maggie is surprised to learn that the Blaineton School will no longer accept children of color as its students. She is baffled by this because only a year earlier, in 1863, young Chloe Strong was among the school’s students. Chloe was the daughter of self-emancipator Matilda Strong, who sojourned in Maggie’s boarding house for a while. When Maggie and family were chased out of Blaineton by an arson fire in early 1863, Eli made arrangements to move everyone to his family home. However, his family home is located in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and they are there for the battle in July of 1863, and this is the story of Walk by Faith.
But now it is the summer of 1864. Maggie and family returned to Blaineton, New Jersey in January and taken up residence in the old Greybeal House. Eli works as editor-in-chief for The Register, the newspaper owned by Tryphena Moore. Nate Johnson has re-established his carpentry business. And for once, Maggie’s odd little household of people who don’t seem to fit in elsewhere are doing well financially.
Enter two young teens who have found their way to Greybeal House. They are African American and orphaned, and Emily and Nate Johnson take them into their family. But when Emily and Maggie go to enroll the girls in the Blaineton School, they learn that children of color are no longer welcome by recent decree of the town’s School Board.
Worse yet, there had been a school for black children in town, but due to the sharp decrease in the Water Street population (where most of the black citizens lived), the School Board decided that it no longer could afford to pay a teacher and keep a building for a handful of children. When Maggie and friends investigate, they find an appalling situation – one that they attempt to remedy. And because they dare to stand up to the status quo, tempers grow hot and things get dangerous.
The idea of a “good community” has its roots in a class I took while attending the Theological School at Drew University. It was taught by the late Dr. David Graybeal. And, yes, I honored him by stealing his last name and switching the “a” out for an “e” for the name of Maggie’s new house in Blaineton. The course was called “The Search for the Good Community, and search we did, reading books, having discussions, and even taking a couple of field trips to planned communities. We wondered what made a community “good"? What did it look like? Who was in it? How did people interact? So many questions. Truthfully, I don’t think we came up with any real answers. But isn’t that just like life? We want facts, we want truth, we want solid substance, but usually things end up fuzzy, gray, and out of reach.
Living as she does in the midst of Civil War era America, Maggie is well-familiar with the fuzzy, gray, and out of reach. Yet, she still wants her beloved town to be “a good community.” Will that ever happen? And how? This part of her story will be continued in the final two books in the series – unless Eli forces me to write more books, that is. But I think by then it will be time to move on to stories that focus on Maggie’s daughters.
On Writing Wednesday, I’ll have another sample from A Good Community.
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder