A state panel on Wednesday recommended that a statue of teenage civil rights heroine Barbara Rose Johns replace Virginia’s Robert E. Lee statue at the U.S. Capitol.
The Commission For Historical Statues In The United States Capitol voted 6-1 in favor of Johns, who was a 16-year-old student at Farmville’s Moton High School in 1951 when she led a student walkout to protest the students’ substandard segregated school facilities.
The Prince Edward County case was rolled into Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled government-segregated public schools unconstitutional.
“It’s time for us to start singing the songs of some of these great people who’ve done some wonderful things,” said Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, who made the motion for Johns. “When I think of Barbara Johns I think how brave she was.”
Ward and Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, said it is important that young people and people of color see themselves at the U.S. Capitol.
“A lot of the notable things that have been done by Black people have not been heralded in the history books because people didn’t care to know about what Black people were doing,” Lucas said.
Lucas added: “We’ve got a bunch of old white guys in Statuary Hall. I think it’s time we put a young person in Statuary Hall.”
Virginia is moving to replace the Lee statue in a year of reckoning about racial injustice following the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. The five finalists were all storied Virginians who were people of color: Johns; civil rights attorney Oliver Hill Sr.; John Mercer Langston, Virginia’s first African American member of Congress; Pocahontas; and Maggie Walker, the first African American woman in the U.S. to charter a bank.
Each state contributes two statues to the Statuary Hall collection. Virginia’s other statue depicts George Washington. While some African American luminaries such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks are depicted in the U.S. Capitol, as yet there are no African Americans in the Statuary Hall collection. That will soon change.
If the General Assembly signs off on the panel’s pick of Johns, she will become one of three African American women slated to be honored in the collection. Florida plans to replace one of its statues with a likeness of educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune. Arkansas plans to switch out one of its two statues for a depiction of civil rights activist Daisy Bates.
While her birth date is uncertain, North Dakota's statue of Sakakawea, a Native American woman who aided the Lewis and Clark exhibition, might depict her as a teenager. One of Alabama’s statues depicts Helen Keller as an 8-year-old child. Keller overcame deafness and blindness to earn a college degree and become a nationally known author.
Commission member Ed Ayers, a history professor and former president at the University of Richmond, took note of written and public comments about the impression a statue of Johns would leave. Ayers said a statue of Johns would underscore for young visitors to the Capitol that “you don’t have to stand in line, but, rather, can make change now.”
The members of the commission are Ayers; Colita Fairfax, professor and Honors College senior faculty fellow at Norfolk State University; Lucas; Fred Motley, founder of the Danville Storytelling Festival; Anne Richardson, chief of the Rappahannock Tribe; Margaret Vanderhye, a former Democratic state delegate from McLean; and Ward.
Richardson cast the only vote against a statue of Johns after having spoken in favor of Pocahontas for her key role in establishing the country.
“The Native American people who were left out of everything should have a place,” Richardson said.
The only mild criticism of picking Johns arose from speakers and correspondents who noted that she spent comparatively little of her life in Virginia.
Johns was born in New York and moved to her grandmother’s farm in Prince Edward County during World War II. She led the student walkout at Moton on April 23, 1951. After someone burned a cross in her family’s yard, Johns’ parents sent her to Alabama to live with her uncle Vernon Johns, another pioneer in the civil rights movement.
Johns later graduated from Drexel University in Philadelphia, married, raised five children and worked as a librarian. She died in 1991.
Alice Lynch, former executive director of the Virginia Capitol Foundation, extolled Johns’ bravery and noted that Johns was forced to flee Virginia.
“What a powerful story for millions of schoolchildren — a high school student without a prominent family, without money, without position, rank, office, without advanced degrees, without influential connections — with everything against her except her ability and belief,” Lynch said.
She added: “It’s an affront to anyone who knows Barbara Johns’ history to question her position as a Virginian.”
On Aug. 7, the state panel unanimously recommended that the Lee statue be moved to the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, which has agreed to take ownership. The panel received 371 written comments suggesting more than 80 names as potential replacements for Lee.
Gov. Ralph Northam issued a statement hailing the panel’s selection of Johns.
“I am proud that her statue will represent Virginia in the U.S. Capitol, where her idealism, courage, and conviction will continue to inspire Virginians, and Americans, to confront inequities and fight for meaningful change now and for generations to come.”
Johns is featured on the Virginia Civil Rights monument at the state Capitol and the building that houses the Attorney General’s Office is named in her honor.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to note that Sakakawea might be a teenager as depicted on one of North Dakota's statues in Statuary Hall. This story previously said that no teenagers are depicted in the Statuary Hall collection.