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Virginia Honors Young Civil Rights Warrior Barbara Johns

Moton Museum

Since a mass shooting in Parkland, Florida earlier this year, students have taken to the streets – demanding more gun control in this country.   Their actions are inspiring, but this is not the first time young people have led a social movement.

67 years ago today a 16-year-old Virginia girl organized a strike by 400 students to protest segregation in Farmville’s public schools. A classmate, Joy Speakes, tells that story in a new film Birthplace of the Student Civil Rights Movement.

“The conditions that we were studying under were deplorable.  We had no gymnasium. We didn’t have a cafeteria.  The books that we had were hand me down books, so pages were torn out and they had derogatory remarks in them also," Speakes recalls. "Our parents had been going to the PTA for years. They asked for a new school.  They gave us three tarpaper shacks.  They were like chicken coops. When it rained you would have to put up an umbrella. Barbara felt that something had to be done!” 

So she sent a note to each classroom, asking teachers and students to attend an assembly. She signed her initials – BJ for Barbara Johns, but those initials also belonged to the principal, Boyd Jones. The teachers, of course, complied and Speakes says they were shocked by what happened next.

“When we got in for the assembly the curtains were closed, and when the curtains opened there was Barbara. Barbara proceeded to ask the teachers to leave, because she didn’t want them to get in any trouble, and then she gave her speech saying that we didn’t have to accept that anymore -- being like a second class citizen, that we must go on strike until we get a new school. One student said, ‘Well what if they put us in jail?’ and Barbara said very sternly, ‘The jail can’t hold us all.’  And I feel now that the younger generation should do the same. If they feel like something is wrong, then they should go to their local government, state government, federal government – wherever they have to go. You know you can’t just sit in the bleachers and expect a change to be made. You have to get out on the field.” 

The strike lasted two weeks according to Cameron Patterson, director of the Moton Museum in Farmville.

“And in that time they were able to make connection with lawyers from the NAACP, Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson, and those two gentleman helped the students put together a legal effort that would be known as Davis versus County School Board of  Prince Edward. That legal effort would become part of  Brown versus Board of Education,” he says.

In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public school segregation was unconstitutional, but Patterson says this state refused to integrate its classrooms  for a decade.

“Virginia enters through this period of massive resistance, and Prince Edward County responds by making the decision to close public schools. The public schools would close in 1959 and would remain closed for a five-year period,” Patterson explains.

The Klan burned a cross on the lawn of Barbara Johns’ family home, and her parents sent her to live with relatives in Alabama. After high school she got a degree from Drexel University in Philadelphia, married a minister, raised five children and worked as a public school librarian until she died in 1991. Today, Virginia honors her and the other students who stood up to injustice by naming this Barbara Johns Day.  

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief