Brown's Battleground: Students, Segregationists, and the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, Virginia

Brown's Battleground: Students, Segregationists, and the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, Virginia

Brown's Battleground: Students, Segregationists, and the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, Virginia

Brown's Battleground: Students, Segregationists, and the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, Virginia

Synopsis

When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Prince Edward County, Virginia, home to one of the five cases combined by the Court under Brown, abolished its public school system rather than integrate.

Jill Titus situates the crisis in Prince Edward County within the seismic changes brought by Brown and Virginia's decision to resist desegregation. While school districts across the South temporarily closed a building here or there to block a specific desegregation order, only in Prince Edward did local authorities abandon public education entirely--and with every intention of permanence. When the public schools finally reopened after five years of struggle--under direct order of the Supreme Court--county authorities employed every weapon in their arsenal to ensure that the newly reopened system remained segregated, impoverished, and academically substandard. Intertwining educational and children's history with the history of the black freedom struggle, Titus draws on little-known archival sources and new interviews to reveal the ways that ordinary people, black and white, battled, and continue to battle, over the role of public education in the United States.

Excerpt

The fiddler came to Farmville in 1951, demanding payment for generations of neglect. The largest community in rural Prince Edward County, located at the northern tip of Virginia’s Black Belt, Farmville was a segregated town. Privileged white men controlled the banks, the businesses, and the schools, as their fathers had before them. Raised in a world defined by the principle of separate and unequal, they reserved the best jobs and schools for whites, congratulating themselves for their generosity in laying aside the leftovers for blacks. Jim Crow set the parameters of life in Prince Edward County, and until 1951 it was a quiet life. But everything changed one April morning. The young people rebelled, overthrowing the community’s old model of race relations and setting in motion a chain of events that thrust Prince Edward into the national spotlight.

On April 23, 1951, the student body at Robert Russa Moton High School— the county’s only black high school—went on strike. Demanding an expanded curriculum, an end to overcrowding, and increased local commitment to black education, the students immediately sent a letter to the NAACP special counsel in Virginia, asking for legal assistance in their fight for a new school. Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson, the pillars of the Richmond NAACP office, were the force behind a massive statewide litigation campaign against the inequalities of Jim Crow. Under their leadership, the Richmond office was a beehive of activity, at one time simultaneously pursuing actions in seventy-five different school districts. The two were initially dismissive of the Moton action, but they agreed to make a brief trip to Farmville, fully intending to encourage the students to return to school.

By 1951, the Virginia NAACP team, like its counterparts in other states, was no longer interested in filing suits to equalize segregated facilities. Lawyers instead sought an opportunity to argue that segregation itself was inherently unequal and thus illegal under the U.S. Constitution. Hill and Robinson stood poised to challenge the entire premise of “separate but equal” in elementary and secondary education, but they did not see Prince Edward as an ideal place to launch this effort. Local whites had a reputation for intransigence, and the . . .

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