|Barbara Rose Johns Powell|
March 6, 1935|
New York City, New York
|Died||September 25, 1991
|Occupation||Civil rights activist, librarian|
|Known for||Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County
R.R. Moton High School protest
Barbara Rose Johns Powell (March 6, 1935 – September 25, 1991) was a young, American civil rights leader-pioneer and the niece of one of the "fathers of the Civil Rights Movement," Vernon Johns. On April 23, 1951, at the age of 16, Powell led a student strike for equal education at R.R. Moton High School in Farmville, Prince Edward County, Virginia. After securing NAACP legal support, the Moton students filed Davis v. Prince Edward County, the largest and only student initiated case consolidated into Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring "separate but equal" public schools unconstitutional.
Barbara Rose Johns Powell was born in New York City, New York in 1935. Her family had roots in Prince Edward County, Virginia, where they returned to live. Her mother worked in Washington D.C. for the U.S. Navy, and her father operated the farm where the family resided. The eldest of five children, Powell had a younger sister, Joan Johns Cobbs, and three younger brothers: Ernest; Roderick, who served in Vietnam as a dog handler and was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart; and Robert.
Powell’s uncle was the prominent Vernon Johns, an outspoken activist for civil rights. When he visited Powell and her family, he would ask the children questions about black history. This motivated Powell and her siblings to study black history, and Powell, as well as her siblings, was influenced by Vernon and his outspoken nature.
While living in Prince Edward County, Powell was educated in segregated public schools. In 1951, 16-year-old Barbara Johns was a junior at the all-black Moton High School in Farmville. Across town was another school, open exclusively to white students. The resources available to each school, and the quality of the facilities, were unequal. Powell’s school was designed and built to hold roughly 200 students, though by 1951 enrollment was twice that number. According to a first-person account from Powell’s sister, Joan:
In winter the school was very cold. And a lot of times we had to put on our jackets. Now, the students that sat closest to the wood stove were very warm and the ones who sat farthest away were very cold. And I remember being cold a lot of times and sitting in the classroom with my jacket on. When it rained, we would get water through the ceiling. So there were lots of pails sitting around the classroom. And sometimes we had to raise our umbrellas to keep the water off our heads. It was a very difficult setting for trying to learn.
Parents of the black students appealed to the all-white school board to provide a larger and properly equipped facility. As a stopgap measure, the board erected several tar paper shacks to handle the overflow of students. Powell was frustrated with the separate and unequal facilities and decided to take action after missing her school bus and watching a bus for the white students pass her. She approached a trusted teacher to voice her concerns and the teacher prompted her to take action.
Barbara Johns met with several classmates and they all agreed to help organize a student strike. On April 23, 1951 the plan Barbara Johns initiated was put into action. The principal of the school was tricked into leaving by being told that some students were downtown causing trouble. While the principal was away, Barbara Johns forged a memo from that principal telling the teachers to bring their classes to a special assembly. The teachers brought their classes and left the assembly per request. She then delivered a speech to all 450 students, revealing her plans for a student strike in protest of the unequal conditions of the black and white schools. The students agreed to participate, and on that day they marched down to the county courthouse to make officials aware of the large difference in quality between the white and black schools. The student leaders went in the office of School Superintendent T. J. McIlwaine who told them they were out of place. Johns had hoped that the strike would end with the county officials sympathizing with the students and building them a new school, but was instead met with indifference and struggle. For the remainder of the day, students picketed the school, both inside and outside, with placards proclaiming, "We want a new school or none at all" and "Down with tar-paper shacks."
On April 25, 1951 Oliver W. Hill and Spottswood Robinson, lawyers for the NAACP, arrive in Prince Edward County to help the students of Robert Russa Moton High School, who have gone on strike. While the strike was being carried out Barbara Johns and other fellow student leaders sought legal counsel from the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). The NAACP agreed to assist as long as the suit would be for an integrated school system, and not just equal facilities. A month later, the NAACP filed Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County in federal court. The court upheld segregation in Prince Edward County, and the NAACP appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Davis v. Prince Edward County, along with four other cases, became part of the case Brown v. Board of Education. As Davis was the only case in Brown initiated by student protest, it is seen by some as the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.
For her part in the integration movement, Johns was harassed and the KKK burned a cross in her yard. Barbara Johns' parents, fearing for her safety, sent her to Montgomery, Alabama to live with her uncle. After the strike, Barbara Johns lived out the rest of her life in relative peace. She married William Powell and raised five children. Her commitment to education moved her to become a librarian. She served in this profession until her death in 1991.
Barbara Johns' contribution to civil rights is often overlooked because she was a teenager when she made a difference. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63, the author Taylor Branch remarks upon Davis v. Prince Edward:
The case remained muffled in white consciousness, and the schoolchild origins of the lawsuit were lost as well on nearly all Negroes outside Prince Edward County. ... The idea that non-adults of any race might play a leading role in political events had simply failed to register on anyone — except perhaps the Klansmen who burned a cross in the Johns' yard one night, and even then people thought their target might not have been Barbara but her notorious firebrand uncle.
The Virginia Civil Rights Memorial was opened in 2008, with Barbara Johns and several other students prominently featured on one side with the quote "It seemed like reaching for the moon." The Library of Virginia also honored Barbara Johns Powell in 2005 by naming her one of their Virginia Women in History.
Barbara Johns is now widely studied in 4th grade Virginia History, where students learn about Civil Rights and Massive Resistance.
In 2010, Virginia artist Louis Briel completed a portrait of Johns, which hung for several months in the State Capitol before being permanently installed in the Robert Russa Moton Museum in Farmville. The portrait is currently on-loan and on display in Virginia’s Executive Mansion following a request by Governor McAuliffe and First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe.
On Aug 17, 2017 in an interview with CBS This Morning - Governor Terry McAuliffe spoke about the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA with a portrait of Barbara Johns in the background. He called the White Supremacists cowards and said
Over my shoulder is Barbara Johns who at 16 led the revolt at Prince Edward County, VA. Where we had white school and black schools, where she said our schools are inferior. And she led a revolt of over 400 students in the 50's. This is what we need for [sic] leaders."
In 2017, Fairfax County, VA considered renaming its J.E.B. Stuart HS after Barbara Johns.
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