Every child in America should know the name of Barbara Rose Johns, because her actions helped to ensure that every American child gets the education she/he deserves. In 1951, Barbara was a 16-year-old student at Robert Russa Moton High School in Prince Edward County, Virginia, an all-black school with deplorable conditions—the school itself was badly in need of repair, the equipment was shabby, there was no gymnasium or science lab, and more than 400 students were crammed into a building meant for 150. Trying to learn in that environment became so frustrating for Barbara that she spoke to a teacher. When the teacher dismissively told her to “do something about it,” Barbara was discouraged at first, and then began to formulate a plan that would eventually lead hers to become one of the five cases in Brown v. Board of Education.
On April 23, 1951, Barbara led a student strike against the substandard conditions at her school—she rallied her fellow students with an impassioned speech and her belief that they could draw attention to their plight and create change, and they followed her out of the school. By May 3, Barbara was standing at the podium of the First Baptist Church in Farmville, speaking to a crowd of over 1,000 that included students, parents, and two lawyers for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The lawyers, Oliver W. Hill and Spotswood Robinson III, filed a lawsuit against Prince Edward County stating that segregation was unconstitutional. This case was known as Davis v. Prince Edward because ninth-grader Dorothy E. Davis was the first named plaintiff in the list of 117 students. Davis eventually became one of the cases in Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 case in which the Supreme Court declared that segregation is unconstitutional, and all children have a right to a decent education in a decent school.
But Barbara’s story doesn’t end there. Heroines are heroines not just because they do the extraordinary, but because they bear the cost of doing the extraordinary.
Despite the Supreme Court ruling, Prince Edward County and the State of Virginia fought integration. Virginia passed a series of laws allowing schools not to integrate—these laws were struck down in 1959. Still, Prince Edward didn’t comply. Rather than integrate, the county closed its schools and opened an all-white private school. This situation continued for five years, until 1964. In such an environment of stubborn, vicious racism, you can imagine what Barbara’s life must have been like. She was harassed, and a cross was burned on her lawn. Eventually, she moved to Alabama to live with relatives.
In her essay “Looking to the Side and Back,” Alice Walker discusses the life of a girl like Barbara who paid the price of courage:
“I knew a young girl who ‘desegregated’ the local white high school in her small town. No one, except her teachers, spoke to her for four years…This girl suffered acute anxiety, so that when she dragged herself home from school every day, she went to bed, and stayed there until the next morning, when she walked off, ramrod straight, to school. Even her parents talked only about the bravery, never about the cost.”
I don’t know if Ms. Walker is referring to Barbara Johns, but she could be. Or she could be discussing another unsung heroine of the Civil Rights movement, another brave girl who changed history but is rarely discussed in history classes.
As we remember and celebrate Barbara, it is important to recognize that her courage included sacrifice. I live in Farmville, in Prince Edward county, where the Robert Russa Moton High School is now the Robert Russa Moton Museum, recently named a top six Virginia destination for its important place in our nation’s history. That history is still here, alive and with us. Things are better, but we still have work to do—you can feel it in the air, our need to heal. I believe we are healing, and will continue to do so. And I believe Barbara’s courage and sacrifice can continue to show us the way.
Note: You can learn more about Barbara’s life in Teri Kanefield’s recently released biography, The Girl from the Tar Paper School. The book is described in a recent article in the Farmville Herald, which provided some of the facts in this profile. I also drew on the Moton Museum’s biography of Barbara and her profile on biography.com.