We welcome a guest post today from Jill Ogline Titus, author of the forthcoming book Brown’s Battleground: Students, Segregationists, and the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, Virginia (December 2011). When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Prince Edward County abolished its public school system rather than integrate. Titus’s book situates the crisis in Prince Edward County within the seismic changes brought by Brown and Virginia’s decision to resist desegregation and reveals the ways that ordinary people, black and white, battled, and continue to battle, over the role of public education in the United States. In this post, she gives historical context for recent news about Brown v. Board of Education Scholarship recipients in Prince Edward County.–ellen

Virginia has made headlines recently with the news that a small number of white residents are benefiting from its Brown v. Board of Education Scholarships. Established by the Virginia General Assembly in 2004, the scholarship program provides funds for college, vocational training, and other educational programs to adults whose educations were disrupted by the state’s mid-twentieth-century policy of “massive resistance” to school desegregation.

Coming as it did on the heels of a 2003 General Assembly resolution expressing “profound regret” for the 1959-1964 closing of the Prince Edward County public schools, which robbed over 2,000 black children of an education, the scholarships have always been understood as a good-faith effort to right historic wrongs committed in the name of maintaining white supremacy. The idea that white residents are also reaping benefit from the program has left many observers scratching their heads, wondering if politics has once again trumped racial justice. Who’s to say, after all, that the parents of some of these white recipients might not have helped engineer, or at least supported, the very policies that made the program necessary?

The massive resistance laws adopted by the Virginia General Assembly in 1956 attempted to forestall desegregation of the state’s public schools by automatically closing any school under court order to begin integration proceedings. When push came to shove two years later, in 1958, the state closed nine schools in Norfolk, Charlottesville, and Warren County, turning nearly 13,000 white children out of school. Hastily formed private white academies sprang up to receive them. When the school closing legislation was ruled unconstitutional in 1959, the closed public schools reopened, but many white students remained in the private academies.

Events in Prince Edward County, however, took a different course. In the wake of the Brown decision, local authorities began funding the public schools on a month-to-month basis. When the courts ordered desegregation to begin in September 1959, county authorities terminated all school funding, effectively ending public education in Prince Edward for five years and ushering in the nation’s longest school closing crisis.

Although the effects of this decision were felt on both sides of the color line, African American residents were disproportionately hurt. In 1959-60, approximately 1,800 black children had no school to attend, a number that continued to climb throughout the next four years, as more and more children reached school age. Some were taught at home by their parents; others attended unofficial grassroots schools held in churches and homes. Still others left the county to live with relatives and friends, but the majority suffered through the next five years with no to little formal schooling.

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. But when a district court judge struck down the use of tuition grants and tax credits in Prince Edward County in 1961, the financial strain of private education began to weigh heavily on poorer white parents. Between 1961 and 1964, white parents paid $574,777 in tuition, in a county in which 49 percent of residents earned less than $3,000 a year. Despite scholarship aid from the PESF, many were forced to take out loans that they could not afford, keep all of their children at home, or make a heart-breaking choice to send only one child to school. By the time the public schools finally reopened in 1964, hundreds of school-age children, black and white, would never return to the classroom.

At the time, white moderates in Prince Edward charged that local authorities used the push for school desegregation as an excuse to pursue a long-cherished goal of ending public education for the masses, in hopes of preserving a pool of cheap labor. Southern white elites, after all, had a long history of manipulating racial prejudice to serve their own class interests, employing the rhetoric of racial solidarity to enlist poorer whites in the defense of economic inequality.

Some of the white men and women being served by the Brown v. Board scholarship program may have grown up in homes that defended white supremacy. But to automatically bar all whites from eligibility seems to close off discussion of the actual, on-the-ground impact of massive resistance on the poorest of the poor. When we will learn that racism just makes it easier for inequality to flourish?

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).