Barbara Rose Johns
Robert Russa Moton Museum

Barbara Rose Johns Helped Make Brown v. Board of Education Possible

Overlooked History is a Teen Vogue series about the undersung figures and events that have shaped the world.

In 1896, the Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson ruled that segregation was constitutional, so long as the facilities for white people and Black people were “separate but equal.” Yet one look at the white and Black public schools across the country would show that these separate facilities were anything but equal. In Prince Edward County, Virginia, the two segregated white schools had cafeterias, gymnasiums, and enough space for their students. They had solid foundations and brick walls, new textbooks, and heating. Conditions at Robert Russa Moton High School, the county’s first free-standing high school for African American students were a different story. 

Moton High School was built in 1939 to hold approximately 180 students, but over 400 students attended the school by 1951. The surplus of students meant that teachers held classes in the auditorium, outside, and even in school buses. The lack of space eventually led to classes in what were called Tar Paper Shacks, but the students referred to them as adult-sized chicken coops. Students had to use secondhand books, desks, and equipment, and Moton did not even have adequate heating or restroom facilities. One 16-year-old had enough of being separate and unequal, and her name was Barbara Rose Johns.

 Johns was born in New York City in 1935 and moved to Prince Edward County shortly after to live with her grandmother, where she attended Moton. Johns very quickly became dissatisfied with her school’s accommodations. As a member of Moton’s debate team, Johns traveled to other schools and saw the inequality firsthand. Not only was Moton insufficient compared to the schools in Prince Edward County, but it also lagged behind others in the entire state of Virginia. 

 Johns was determined to do something about the inequity. She confided in her music teacher about her frustrations, who replied, “Why don’t you go do something about it?” At first, Johns felt as if her teacher had rejected her claims, but she eventually realized she could do something.  

Johns decided to organize a strike. She assembled a strike committee, including some of the more popular students, knowing that she needed more social capital to make a strike happen. They decided it would occur around April to disrupt final exams and graduation, which would ensure the school board realized they were serious. 

On April 23, 1951, Johns and her peers set their plan into action. Committee member John Watson prank-called the main office at Moton High School and told the school principal that some Moton students were causing trouble downtown. The principal immediately left the building to interfere and ensure that the local businesses did not call the police. Next, Johns sent notes around to the teachers saying there would be an assembly in the auditorium effective immediately. She signed her note “BJ” for Barbara Johns, but the principal, whose name was Boyd Jones, conveniently signed his notes in the exact same way.  

The curtains at the Moton auditorium opened to reveal Johns standing at the podium, and the assembly-turned-strike had begun. The audience, including Johns’ own younger sister, Joan, was caught totally unaware. Johns encouraged her peers to walk out of the building and not return until the county built them a new school. Their parents had tried and failed. Their community members had tried and failed. And the inadequate conditions and equipment had already cost some Moton students their lives. 

Almost exactly one month to the day before the strike occurred, there was a terrible bus accident. The buses at Moton were purchased secondhand from the segregated white high schools in the community. But these buses were in horrendous condition and broke down often. On a rainy, foggy day, one Moton bus broke down on the train tracks. Five students — Hettie Dungee, Winfield Page, Dodson Hendricks, Christine Hendricks, and Naomi Hendricks — died in the accident. Hettie was Johns’ best friend. That accident showed the students that inequality was not only a threat to their education, but their lives as well.  

Johns won over the student body unanimously. Every student walked out of school that day. Some students stayed at the school to protest, some students went home, and a small group went with Johns to speak with the superintendent to demand a new school. Faced with resistance from the school board, the students decided to take the strike a step further and sue the county. They approached Reverend L. Francis Griffin pastor of the local First Baptist Church, who was very active with the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Griffin encouraged Johns and her to reach out to attorneys in Richmond, so they wrote a letter to attorneys Oliver Hill and Spotswood Robinson.  

But the attorneys were not interested in taking the case from such a small and rural county. Instead, Hill and Robinson were focused on a case in Pulaski, a bigger county west of Johns’ town. Still, Johns realized that the attorneys traveling would have to pass through their town. The lawyers were not yet convinced, but Johns was persistent. The attorneys agreed to hear the students out. They had so little faith in taking Johns’ case that when they arrived, they told the man driving them to keep the car running.  

Hill and Robinson had likely expected to see maybe 50 people during their trip to Prince Edward County. They were greeted in First Baptist Church by almost 1,000 people. Johns stood up in that church and advocated for her community. Although the NAACP wanted to end segregation, many Black communities at the time felt unsure about integration. But Johns had no problem supporting the NAACP’s radical ideas, and Rev. Griffin followed her, saying that anyone that did not help these students was a coward. Their efforts silenced dissenters in the community and, on May 23, 1951, they filed Davis v. County Board of Prince Edward County.  

However, Johns’ outspoken role in the strike did have its consequences. Very shortly after the strike, Johns received several death threats, and there was a cross burning on the Moton High School grounds. For her safety, Barbara’s parents sent her away to live with her uncle in Montgomery, Alabama, where she kept a low profile. 

Davis v. Prince Edward County ultimately became one of the five cases in Brown v. Board of Education, joining Briggs v. Elliot from South Carolina, Belton v. Gebhardt from Delaware, and Bolling v. Sharpe from Washington D.C. On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled that “in the field of education the doctrine of separate but equal had no place.” The Prince Edward Students had won a major victory, but the fight wasn’t over yet,

Many state leaders in the South collectively refused to desegregate, a movement that became known as “massive resistance.” In 1959, Prince Edward County was finally forced to comply with the decision but instead opted to close all public schools to avoid desegregation. Schools would remain closed from 1959 until 1964. Through years of advocacy, protests, a visit from Martin Luther King Jr., and another U.S. Supreme Court Case, eventually schools did reopen in Prince Edward County. Robert Russa Moton High School would become Mary E. Branch #2 and operated in some capacity until 1991.  

Some concerned citizens approached the county and raised over $300,000 to purchase the original Moton High School. The building became a National Historic Landmark in 1998 and the Moton Museum opened in 2001 on the 50th anniversary of the 1951 student walkout. In 2008, a civil rights memorial was erected in Richmond behind the governor’s mansion. The monument features Barbara Johns, Rev. Griffin, and Oliver Hill, among other trailblazing activists. In 2018, April 23 was declared Barbara Johns Day in the Commonwealth of Virginia. In 2022, a statue of Barbara Johns was selected to replace the statue of Robert E. Lee in the Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. which will be erected later this year. 

Growing up in Prince Edward County, I was not keenly aware of this history. I did well in school, but every year my dad made me go to summer school. When I aged out of what I called “voluntary summer school,” he would create homework for me to do over the summer. It was very frustrating as a child until I realized that my father was one of the students locked out of school. My father was six when schools closed to avoid desegregation. He did not return to school until he was 11 years old.

But my connection to this story goes further than my father’s experience. I have worked at the Robert Russa Moton Museum for about seven years. I had no idea that my great-grandfather and great aunts had been part of Brown v. Board of Education until I was setting up for an event and saw their names on a plaque. Arlene and John Townsend had passed before I was born, but I spent considerable time with my aunt Mildred before she died. It was never discussed, but I desperately wished I could go back and ask questions. I believe it was chance that landed me at the Moton Museum, but after learning about all the family connections I have to this story, it is difficult to continue to believe in coincidences. 

When describing planning the strike, Johns said, “There wasn’t any fear. I just thought this is your moment, seize it.” She had her moment and seized it. Through the power of student agency and collective action, these Prince Edward County students — including my own family members — changed the world. They remind us that conflict is ever-present, but young people will continue to show us the way. The students in Virginia were led by a 16-year-old Black girl during the Jim Crow Era. As Johns also said: “A little child shall lead them.”  

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