Seventy years ago this April 23, a 16-year-old girl led a strike at her all-Black high school in Farmville that helped lead to the dismantling of school segregation. Barbara Rose Johns organized her fellow students to protest the shoddy conditions at Robert Russa Moton High School, which someone described as looking “like a poultry farm” because of the leaky, drafty tar paper shacks used to alleviate overcrowding.
Johns and her classmates, fed up with the inferior facilities, walked out of the Prince Edward County high school in 1951 and into the history books. Their strike caught the attention of the NAACP’s famed lawyers, Spottswood W. Robinson III and Oliver W. Hill Sr. They filed a federal lawsuit that became one of the five cases in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously declared “separate but equal” as unconstitutional.
April 23 is Virginia’s annual Barbara Johns Day, which celebrates the life of the late civil rights icon. Earlier this year, the General Assembly agreed to a recommendation by a state panel to replace a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in the U.S. Capitol with one of the teenaged Johns, who died in 1991. Her likeness will join that of George Washington’s as one of Virginia’s two statues.
This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Robert Russa Moton Museum, which is housed in the historic schoolhouse and tells the story of the struggle for civil rights, both in Prince Edward and nationally. Change didn’t come easily: Despite the high court’s ruling, Virginia’s Massive Resistance policy delayed school desegregation until the 1960s, and Prince Edward shuttered its schools for five years rather than integrate.
To coincide with Barbara Johns Day, the museum will hold a special celebration and fundraiser. “Moton Live 2021,” a 10-hour virtual celebration, will be streamed via Facebook, YouTube and the museum’s website: https://motonmuseum.org
Featured speakers include Gov. Ralph Northam; Virgil Wood, church leader and civil rights activist; and Margot Lee Shetterly, author of “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.”
This is an important part of Virginia’s history. Young Barbara Rose Johns took a courageous stand and left an indelible mark on this nation. She reminds us that every voice matters, regardless of race, age or gender.
— Pamela Stallsmith