CHESTERTOWN, MD—A new book by Jill Ogline Titus, Associate Director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College, tells the story of one Virginia county’s radical reaction to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Published this month by The University of North Carolina Press, Titus’s Brown’s Battleground: Students, Segregationists, & the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, Virginia explores how Prince Edward County simply closed all its public schools to avoid integrating them.
Five years later, when the county was forced to reopen its schools, the battle continued as county officials worked to ensure that the “new” system remained segregated, impoverished and substandard.
Titus first learned about the story while working as an intern in the Philadelphia office of the National Park Service’s National Historic Landmarks program, which in 1998 had designated Prince Edward County’s Moton High School as a National Landmark. “I had known that the Brown v. Board of Education decision included a Virginia case,” she says. “But it wasn’t until I started digging into the specifics of the history of Moton High School that I realized that resistance to the decision had been so intense as to shut down an entire county’s public school system.”
Titus, who earned her Ph.D. in History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 2007, wrote her dissertation about the closing of the Prince Edward County schools. In converting her research into Brown’s Battleground, she shifted her focus to the people whose lives were affected not only by that one drastic decision, but also by the prevailing attitudes and prejudices of the time. “I wanted to show modern-day readers the disastrous consequences that befell children, the most vulnerable members of our society, when a group of adults decided that their community could do without a public school system.”
Adam Goodheart, the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of the C.V. Starr Center, says Brown’s Battleground “perfectly exemplifies the kind of historical writing that we strive to foster here at the Starr Center: deeply researched, intellectually rigorous, and elegantly narrated. Moreover, it speaks powerfully to questions that still challenge us today.”
Titus agrees that the story she tells is still relevant a half-century later. “We’re living in an age of mounting retreat from Brown v. Board of Education, and intensifying debate over the future of public education itself. I see the Prince Edward crisis as a cautionary tale for our time,” she says. “It challenges the idea that any substitute for a public school system can consistently provide quality education for all children, regardless of their ability to pay.”
Before joining the staff of the Starr Center in 2007, Titus worked extensively for the National Park Service as a ranger-historian at several historic sites. While serving as a historian with the National Historic Landmarks Program, she helped create the Sites of Conscience Project, which encourages stewards of historic properties to make their sites centers of civic dialogue. Her articles and reviews have appeared in Journal of Southern History, Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, The Public Historian, and The American Scholar.