Spy Review: Jill Titus’ “Brown’s Battleground” by David Bruce Smith


Sixty-one years ago, the students at Farmville, Virginia’s all-black R. R.

Moton High School went on strike. Their curriculum was substandard, as were the learning conditions—particularly in comparison to the nearly pristine all-white senior high across the street.

According to Jill Ogline Titus’s Brown’s Battleground: Students, Segregationists & the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, Virginia, Moton was intended “…to accommodate 180 students,” but by 1950 it “…housed 477. Instead of expanding…or…construct[ing] a new facility, the all-white school board had erected three temporary wooden outbuildings covered with tar paper and resembling chicken coops…”

Unheated, “the…buildings bred colds. The stoves, cracked from overheating, frequently spewed hot coals…”

The students stayed out of class two weeks, but in that time, the community was roused, rallied, pitched, and pressed to participate in the prod towards improvement of circumstances.

Simultaneously, two NAACP representatives, Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson, were persuaded to visit. Almost immediately they determined that Farmville had the potential to “experience” a Civil Rights Event, and catapult the Movement.

Hill and Robinson also presumed there was enough impetus to impact

the axiomatic argument favoring “separate but unequal” schools. In May of 1951 the pair petitioned the all-white school board to terminate segregation.

The request was denied, and the angered, influential County authorities retaliated. During the next few years, funds were pulled from the “colored curriculum”, and pushed into the white schools. Some Caucasian families also received tax refunds to reduce tuition.

Finally, in what appeared to be the antidote to a large social problem, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in the 1954 case, Brown v. Board of Education, that segregation was unlawful.

But, the County ignored the decree. It continued to deplete the “colored” schools of resources, so that by 1959, all were closed—with glee.

In an attempt to “rescue” the displaced students, activist-groups such as the Prince Edward Scholarship Fund, the Prince Edward Free School Association, and the Prince Edward County Christian Association, pounced, and hastily assembled makeshift schools, sponsored student education, and “bussed” a small number of adolescents to Northern families that were willing to foster parent/matriculate them for a year or two.

Prince Edward County was the only system in the country that closed its “colored” schools for half a decade. The re-opening was “under direct order from the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Unfortunately, the flurry of continuous activity on behalf of the pupils did not necessarily prevent a lifetime of social and financial consequences — then or now.

As of 2005, “White students…continue[d] to outperform blacks in all the major academic subject areas…”

Though systemic disparities have narrowed, and excitability has leveled, “…financing, community control, social segregation, problematic performance on standardized tests, and the achievement gap between white and minority students—are the seminal issues in American education…”

Letters to Editor

  1. This is an extremely well-done review. The writing is top-notch, as evidenced by sentences like “Hill and Robinson also presumed there was enough impetus to impact the axiomatic argument favoring “separate but unequal” schools.” Mr. Smith gave proper and due justice to Titus’s harrowing account of segregation in Virginia.

  2. Brown’s Battleground is an extremely well written book. Jill Titus brings to life the fight being waged in a small Virginia town. She allows the participants to speak for themselves. We admire the courage of the Moton high school students who struck for better treatment at the hands of the white school board, as well as the patience of The Reverend L.Francis Griffin who led the black comtmunity through the long years when the public schools were closed. We applaud the work of the NAACP and the American Friends Service. We hear the voices of those who held power, and upheld segregation in Farmville , and read of the homesickness of students sent away to live with host families so they could finish their education. Brown’s Battleground is not only a scholarly work, but is a real page turner.

  3. jenifer emley says:

    This is an extremely well done book!
    Brava to Dr. Titus for bringing such an intolerable and sad situation to our attention.

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