Jill Ogline Titus: Back-to-School Reflections

A new school year is upon us–a time filled with eager anticipation for some, and anxiety and dread for others.  Jill Ogline Titus, author of Brown‘s Battleground: Students, Segregationists, and the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, Virginia (December 2011), recalls the five years following the Brown vs. BoE decision when a public education was denied to all students to prevent desegregation.  Here, she looks at the lengths many families in Prince Edward County, VA went to so that their children could receive an education. -Alex

Every September, when the school buses hit the road and there’s a back-to-school sale everywhere you turn, I think about the black parents of Prince Edward County, Virginia. For five Septembers in a row they were forced to watch other children return to school while their own could not. Prince Edward County’s public school system was shuttered from 1959 through 1964, as county authorities waged a desperate battle against the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. While school districts across the South temporarily closed a building here or there to block a specific desegregation order, local authorities in Prince Edward were the only ones to abandon public education entirely, and with every intention of permanence.

White students moved into private schools operated by the Prince Edward School Foundation (PESF), where they were taught by instructors who had recently been employed in the public schools. Until the PESF was able to raise funds to build its own building, classes were held in white churches and community buildings. In the first year of operations, parents paid no tuition; in the second year, thanks to the availability of publicly funded tuition grants, they paid only $15.

Black parents, on the other hand, spent each summer casting about for ways to get their children back into the classroom. Many tried to teach the younger ones at home, or sent them to grassroots schools operated in churches and private homes. When outside groups such as the Virginia Teachers Association and the Student Christian Movement of New England came to Prince Edward to offer summer “catch-up” programs, they leapt to enroll their children.

Between 1959 and 1963, parents sent hundreds of school-age children away from the county to live with relatives and family friends. Some of the young people were eager to go, others found them themselves sent away over their own objections. Many who left were tormented by the knowledge that similar opportunities were not available for their siblings. Though many Prince Edward blacks had close relatives living outside the county, the size and limited finances of these families made it impossible to provide for all the children who needed a home away from home.

Parents with greater financial resources often relocated their families or rented properties in neighboring counties to make their children eligible to attend public schools. One couple drove their five children across the county line every day for two years so they could catch the school bus in front of an empty rental house. Enrollment in some neighboring school districts increased to fifty students per classroom during the Prince Edward crisis.

Parents who had no far-flung relatives or friends able to take in their children sometimes made use of large-scale boarding programs organized by local activists and outside friends. Approximately sixty students took classes in the high school department of Kittrell College, an AME junior college in North Carolina, twenty-two were sent to Washington, DC, and about a hundred more were placed in homes across the state through the efforts of the Virginia Teachers Association. A Quaker organization, the American Friends Service Committee, arranged for sixty-seven students to attend integrated schools in eight northern states.

Some children who left the county had wonderful experiences, returning to Prince Edward with expanded horizons, stronger academic skills, and new career goals. Others, torn from their homes and families, were plagued by loneliness, fear, and a sense of isolation. A few were mistreated by their host families, a brutal reminder of the agonizing dilemma parents faced: keep their children at home where they were safe, even at the cost of watching their future slowly crumble, or send them away in hopes of providing them a better life, entrusting them to the care of others and risking the possibility that they might be hurt.

Confronted by an unprecedented situation, parents struggled to do the best they could within the limitations constraining them. Yet every September, the sales on school supplies no doubt reminded them that another year had come and gone, and they were still ad-libbing.

Jill Ogline Titus is associate director of the C. V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College. She is author of Brown’s Battleground: Students, Segregationists, and the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, Virginia (forthcoming December 2011). Read her previous guest post, “The Cost of Resistance.”

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