At the age of 16, Johns led the school walkout that helped desegregate public schools in the US. Soon, her statue will stand in the Capitol building.
The statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee that sat in the Capitol building came down Monday morning. The monument to the slavery-promoting secessionist defeated in the Civil War will be replaced by a tribute to civil rights activist and school desegregationist Barbara Rose Johns Powell.
“The Confederacy is a symbol of Virginia’s racist and divisive history, and it is past time we tell our story with images of perseverance, diversity, and inclusion,” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said in a statement to CNN. “I look forward to seeing a trailblazing young woman of color represent Virginia in the US Capitol, where visitors will learn about Barbara Johns’ contributions to America and be empowered to create positive change in their communities just like she did.”
At the age of 16, Johns orchestrated a walkout in protest of substandard conditions at her all-Black Virginia high school, laying the foundation for a lawsuit that was instrumental in the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared segregation illegal in 1954.
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The school Johns attended, Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia, had no science labs, gym, or cafeteria. There was no indoor plumbing, and the buildings were heated by wood stoves⸺a far cry from the nearby, all-white Farmville High School. The school was meant to accommodate 180 students but was so overcrowded that more than 400 students were in attendance at the time. Shacks of plywood and tar paper sheltered the overflow of students. On April 23, 1951, after an overcrowded school bus accident killed several of her classmates, she organized a walkout to bring attention to the school’s conditions. For two weeks, students didn’t attend classes.
“It was time that Negroes were treated equally with whites, time that they had a decent school, time for the students themselves to do something about it. There wasn’t any fear. I just thought — this is your moment. Seize it!” Johns wrote in her diary at the time, according to the Moton Museum.
Her persistence impressed NAACP lawyers, who filed the suit Davis v. Prince Edward at the federal courthouse in Richmond, Virginia. It was one of five that the Supreme Court reviewed in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka when it declared school segregation unconstitutional.
In 1953, Johns and her peers were allocated a new school with equal facilities to the nearby all-white school, Encyclopedia Virginia reported. However, Prince Edward County’s white citizens, where Farmville is located, challenged desegregation for years following Johns’ protest and the Brown v. Board decision. According to the Brown v. Board of Education NHS Visitor Center website, “The Board of Supervisors for Prince Edward County refused to appropriate any funds for the County School Board for the period 1959-1964, effectively closing the public schools rather than integrate them.”
Members of the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in her yard, and for her safety, Johns was sent to finish out her high school years with her uncle in Montgomery, Alabama. She attended Spelman College in Atlanta and graduated from Drexel University in Philadelphia to become a librarian. In 2017, Virginia named the building where the Attorney General’s Office is located was named after her. The first day of her strike, April 23, is Barbara Johns Day in Virginia, and a Farmville community library bears her name.
The removal of Lee’s statue is part of a larger national trend of removing tributes to the Confederacy and other racist people and institutions. Many remain, including in the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall, which has statues of prominent enslavers such as Washington.