CHESTERTOWN, MD—When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, segregationists in Prince Edward County, Virginia vowed that their schools would never comply with the high court and integrate. Instead, they would simply close all the public schools in the county. This remarkable but little-known chapter in America’s civil rights history is captured in rich detail in Jill Ogline Titus’s new book, Brown’s Battleground: Students, Segregationists, and the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, Virginia (University of North Carolina Press, 2011).
Titus, who serves as associate director of the C.V. Starr Center at Washington College, will read from her book at a special event Thursday, March 1, at 5 p.m. in Hynson Lounge, Hodson Hall, on the College campus, 300 Washington Avenue. A book signing will follow. The event is free and open to the public. Sponsors at Washington College are the Institute for Religion, Politics, and Culture; the Office of Multicultural Affairs; the Black Studies Program; the Department of History; and the Department of Political Science.
Titus first learned about the Virginia county’s school closings while working as an intern for the National Park Service’s National Historic Landmarks program. In 1998 the program 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 earned her Ph.D. in History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 2007, and she 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 by both that one drastic decision and the prevailing attitudes and prejudices of the time. “I wanted to show modern-day readers the disastrous consequences that befell children, … when a group of adults decided that their community could do without a public school system.”
Titus believes the story she tells is still relevant a half-century later as American debate the future and the funding of public education. “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 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.