Module III: Barbara Rose Johns Powell and the Students of Prince Edward County (1951-1963)

16-Year Old Barbara Rose Johns

16-Year Old Barbara Rose Johns

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Six years before the infamous warriors called Little Rock Nine went into battle in Arkansas, a group of high school students planned a landmark protest against the conditions of their segregated school.  This is that story.

“It Seemed Like Reaching for the Moon”: Barbara Rose Johns and the Young Black People of Prince Edward County

On April 23, 1951, Barbara Johns, a sixteen year old high school student, gave a momentous speech at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia.  She called for a strike protesting the conditions of the all-black school where she took classes in tar paper shacks. One month before the strike, five students had been killed by a bus while they were crossing the dangerous railroad tracks on their walk to their segregated school.  Barbara Johns and her fellow students held a school strike, marched into the superintendent’s office, and demanded a better school.  The NAACP heard of the students’ cause, provided support, and ultimately added the Farmville case to their challenge against Jim Crow with Brown v Board of Education.  Meanwhile, students’ parents were threatened with jail and fired from their jobs for supporting their children. Barbara Johns was sent to live in Alabama with relatives because her parents feared for her safety after a cross was burned in their yard and after the continual threats they received.

1963 Civil Rights Protest by students in Farmville, VA, originally printed in the Richmond-Times Dispatch in 1963..

Ongoing Protests by Prince Edward County Students in 1963

One month after the strike that Barbara Johns led, “Davis v. Prince Edward” became one of the legal cases incorporated into Brown v. Board of Education and remains the only case initiated by students in the Civil Rights Movement.  Even though schools were legally desegregated under Brown, whites in control of  Prince Edward County refused to comply for years. Instead of integrating the schools when the county was forced to do so, white officials closed the public schools of Prince Edward County for four years so that white children would not have to attend school with black children. Black families moved away or sent their students to different cities and states so that their children could get a public education.  Throughout these four years, students themselves stayed on the frontlines protesting racist schooling in the United States.  

Prince Edward County SignTwelve years after Barbara John’s protest, on Sunday, September 15, 1963, Four Little Girls were murdered when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama.  The next day— Monday, September 16, 1963— was the first day of school for black students in Prince Edward County.  These were students who had been denied a public education for four years because white wanted to punish them for their years of protest and activism.  It was a first day of school like no other!  As you can see, these young black people were part of a larger national movement where young people themselves were always front and center.

 More about Barbara Johns

Barbara Rose Johns Powell,  1935-1991

Barbara Rose Johns Powell, 1935-1991

Although Barbara Johns was born in New York City, her family was rooted in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Her father, Robert, and mother, Violet, had migrated north to find work, like so many other African Americans.

During World War II, Johns lived on a tobacco farm with her maternal grandmother Mary Croner. She picked tobacco in her free time and also worked in the country store owned by her uncle, Reverend Vernon Johns, who was a strong influence on her life. He was a prominent member of the black community in Prince Edward County and had a reputation as a militant minister. Barbara’s grandmothers on both sides of the family, Mary Croner and Sally Johns, were both strong women who were not afraid of whites.

In 1951, Barbara was a 16-year-old junior at the segregated Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia. Frustrated by the refusal of the local school board to build a new high school for black students, she decided that something had to be done to change the situation. The school she attended was constructed to hold slightly more than 200 students, and already had twice that number. Classes were held on school buses and in the auditorium. When parents appealed to the school board for a new school, the board put up several tar-paper shacks as a stopgap measure to accommodate the overflow of students. Johns met with several students she could trust and asked if they would help her organize a student strike; they agreed.

k736c5-capitol-Moton-statuaTheir plan was to get the principal away from the building and then call the entire student body together to vote on the strike. They arranged to have someone report to the principal that some students were downtown causing trouble. When the principal left the building, the strike committee called all the students together in the auditorium and Johns revealed her plans for a strike. The students agreed to walk out and almost all of them received their parents’ support.

They then asked the NAACP to represent and advise them. The NAACP agreed to help them as long as they were willing to sue for an integrated school, not simply one that was equal to the white school. At a community meeting, Johns silenced the few adults opposed to the suit. The parents overwhelmingly supported the strike. The Farmville case became of one of the five cases that the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka when it declared segregation unconstitutional in 1954.  [The segment about Johns comes from the Teachers’ Domain:  “Barbara Johns of Farmville, Virginia.” Teachers’ Domain. 5 Nov. 2010. Web. 2 Jun. 2013.]

NOTE: Clicking on the words, Little Rock Nine and Four Little Girls, in the text above will take you straight  to documentaries if you need more background.

In this part of the workshop, we will work with the language and rhetoric of the strikes and meetings (via photographs) that students used in their protests.