By Andrea Clarke
Elm Staff Writer
Washington College has just received another stellar contribution to the impressive and ever-growing collection of faculty publications.
Doctor Jill Ogline Titus, associate director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience and full-time staff member, has recently published her first book, “Brown’s Battleground.”
Released this past October, Titus’ non-fiction story relates the struggles of one black community in Virginia as it responds to the 1954 Supreme Court ruling Brown vs. Board of Education.
“This story of a community that closed its schools for five years rather than desegregate them is one that most people don’t know, but it’s an important one… I sometimes get blank stares when I describe my book. It’s beyond anyone’s imagination that this kind of thing happened and only 40, 50 years ago. Most people think of Birmingham, churches burning, marching, etc,” she said.
According to her, this story is a “quiet” one, not flashy enough to have gotten a lot of media coverage, but so stirring in its intimacy that its message becomes all the more important and poignant.
“It’s a story that has some relevance for anyone who cares about education. I wanted to write about the courage of the Prince Edward black community in pushing this lawsuit to desegregate schools. They lost their schools as a result, but they didn’t back down. They refused to go under. I especially wanted to focus on what happened to the children when the schools closed,” said Doctor Titus.
The black-and-white cover picture of her new book portrays just that. Backs facing the viewer, several black students stand around a makeshift fence that separates them from the local high school. In the middle is a sign that reads, “School Property: No Trespassing Under Penalty of Law.”
Titus said, “I picked the photo because I thought it visually summed up everything I’m trying to say. I wanted to get inside the heads of the teenagers . . . standing there looking at the school, and their school is off limits to them. To go into their own school is trespassing. I think that’s incredible, and I think the picture shows the determination of the students. They went to great lengths to get alternative education. They’re crushed, but they’re also determined.”
It is this courage in the face of overwhelming prejudice and obstacles that touched Doctor Titus so deeply and inspired her to write “Brown’s Battleground.”
The story grew from her Ph.D dissertation in graduate school at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she studied mostly American and African American history. Doctor Titus credits an undergraduate course she took at Taylor University for sparking her interest in the history of the civil rights movement. There she read the book Local People by historian John Dittmer, which she now says is one of her favorites.
While Doctor Titus continues to be captivated by the stories of fortitude she finds in history, it is her own passion and energy that is especially exciting.
“[The story of ‘Brown’s Battleground’] is particularly important for today because more than 50 years after the Supreme Court’s ruling Brown v. Board of Education, a vast majority of American children are going to extremely segregated schools. A whole generation made enormous sacrifices to achieve desegregated schools, and we as a society have let it slip away,”she said. Part of her strong position comes from having lived in Pennsylvania in areas “where there is little racial diversity.”
“I’m not the type of writer who feels physically compelled to write something because writing is like breathing. I just write when I have something to say. I hope maybe the book will help people understand why I’ve always been so passionate about education. I try to be the kind of teacher who inspires my students and makes them want to learn, and this story of a generation locked out of school really broke my heart,” she said.
When asked about her own family, Doctor Titus gave a big smile. “I’d like to have kids one day. I’m sure to see things differently from the point of view of a parent.”
She mentions her husband Sean Titus, a former WC admission counselor..
When she received the first advanced copy of her book, “my husband and I picked it up, smelled it, held it all night, and celebrated with a very nice dinner he made for me.”
Her finished dissertation could not compare to the experience of finally holding “Brown’s Battleground” in her hands. She said, “My thesis was 600 pages of Microsoft Word in blue binding, so not very interesting physically . . . but the book, the book was beautiful.”