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  • Brown’s Battleground: Students, Segregationists, & the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, Virginia by Jill Ogline Titus
  • Angela D. Sims
Brown’s Battleground: Students, Segregationists, & the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, Virginia. By Jill Ogline Titus. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. 279 pp. Hardbound, $40.00.

Drawing on personally conducted interviews, archived oral histories, case law, and secondary sources, Jill Titus, historian and associate director of the Civil War Institute in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, situates a particular 1951 response to separate and unequal educational systems within a larger historical narrative about [End Page 388] race and education. With some US citizens’ continued calls to “take back our country,” coupled with a demand for decreased federal government involvement in the public sphere, Brown’s Battleground: Students, Segregationists, & the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, Virginia, is a timely reminder that inequalities in public education persist in a post Brown v. Board of Education era.

With specific attention to the reactions from multiple sectors of the United States following a 1951 student-initiated walk-out to protest overcrowding and poor conditions in segregated all-black schools in a community located approximately seventy-five miles from Richmond, Virginia (capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia and a former capital of the Confederacy), and less than two hundred miles from Washington, D.C., Titus describes with clarity the moral problem that precipitated this incident. She also discusses associated sociocultural dynamics that ultimately resulted in the closure of a public school and the launch of a racially exclusive private academy financed, in part, by diverted government funds.

In nine thematic chapters, Titus reminds us that public education should not be viewed as a zero-sum game. Rather, her research emphasizes the importance of empowering students to act on their own behalf with an expectation that parents, school administrators, and civic leaders will be cognizant of decisions that either strengthen or diminish ideologies of racial supremacy reflective of many US school jurisdictions from the 1950s to the present. Woven throughout Brown’s Battleground are biographical narratives of individuals whose at least thirty-year recollection of events provides a panoramic scope of historic and contemporary issues that can serve as a lens for future consideration. As Titus’s narrative makes clear, persons from varied backgrounds both impede and support initiatives for “equalized facilities and an expanded curriculum” and ultimately issue a call-to-action for desegregation without understanding fully the emotional, familial, developmental, and financial costs (6).

Titus introduces readers to the historical site that spurred a group of students, supported by family, community elders, and local, state, regional, and national human rights activists, to exercise moral agency. Their decision to speak on their own behalf reminds us, as Titus notes, that their experience was not unique. Rather, “the struggle in Prince Edward became a barometer for both the depth of black commitment to desegregated education and the intensity of southern white resistance to Brown” (9). At stake was the extent to which some architects of exclusivity would go to perpetuate a segregated school system that had little to no semblance of equality.

In presenting points of view both for and against court-mandated desegregation, Titus acknowledges that student activists and their parents realized, in retrospect, that they “suffered their children to be destroyed in order that the [End Page 389] law might speak” (45). In an effort to mitigate harm, parents and friends in the struggle arranged for a select group of Prince Edward County students to attend school in other jurisdictions. Residing with host families, many black students from Prince Edward County in this way attended school and developed relationships with whites for the first time. In addition, with a decision to close Prince Edward County’s public schools, some white parents, as they struggled to afford private tuition for their children, discovered their interests were more closely aligned with those of black parents, although not without resistance to that idea and an awareness of the risk, if they spoke out, of social ostracism.

In the latter half of Brown’s Battleground, Titus addresses challenges made to desegregation based on economics and on a theological rationale of racism...