APRIL 23, 1951
Barbara Johns, the 16-year-old niece of civil rights leader Vernon Johns, stood before the all-Black student body at the R.R. Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia. She proposed a walkout to protest deplorable conditions inside the school, which had no laboratories, no gym and no cafeteria.
When some students said they were afraid they would be arrested, she replied, “The Farmville jail isn’t big enough to hold us.” And walk out they did, all 450 of them.
Johns’ hopes ran high. “People would hear us, would see us and understand our difficulty, would sympathize with our plight and would grant us our new school building,” she wrote. “It would be grand, and we would live happily ever after.”
Two weeks later, the students returned, but instead of a new building, they were met with anger from administrators. Johns reached out to the NAACP, which challenged the segregated system.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case that resulted, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, as part of Brown v. Board of Education.
A statue of Barbara Johns has been built on the grounds of the state Capitol in Richmond, and the Ninth Street Office Building, where the Virginia attorney general’s offices are housed, has been named after her.
She died in 1991 of bone cancer. The state of Virginia is now replacing the statute of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee with a statue of Johns in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall.