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How Barbara Johns Changed Equality In Virginia’s Education System

Woman smiling
A photo of Barbara Johns as an adult. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Virginia)

*Joi Bass reported this story

On April 23, 1951, 16-year-old Barbara Johns organized a student walk out at Robert Russa Moton High School. The walk out would form part of the foundation of Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark Supreme Court decision that paved the way for school desegregation.

Joan Johns Cobbs, her sister, says she was as surprised as everyone else the day of the walk out.

“When she came to school and came to the auditorium, got on the stage and asked us to go out on a strike for a better school, just like everybody else in there, I was completely in the dark,” Johns Cobbs said.

Their high school in Prince Edward County was built in 1939 and named after Robert Russa Moton, a Black educator raised in the county.

Now the site hosts the Moton Museum, led by Executive Director Cameron Patterson. He says the strike was a response to years of neglect. 

“When the school was built, it was built for 180 students, and in the decade that would follow that enrollment continued to climb, reaching 450 at the time of the 1951 student walkout,” Patterson said.

Patterson says along with overcrowding, the school’s condition raised concerns.

“The students recognized that they deserved better, if their teachers had access to better resources that their experience would be much greater,” Patterson said.

Johns wanted a new school building. NAACP lawyers, including Virginia-native Oliver Hill, agreed to take her on as a client, but they recommended she switch her focus from getting a new school building to pushing for integration.

Johns’ case, along with four others relating to school segregation, morphed into the landmark Brown v. Board of Education.

Johns Cobbs says she and her sister were ecstatic when the verdict was heard.

“We were shouting and jumping up for joy that the Supreme Court had declared all schools needed to be integrated, so we felt that joining the case was a plus and everybody was excited about what happened that particular day,” John Cobbs said.

But Patterson says the struggle wasn’t over.

“The fight to achieve education equality didn’t just end with Brown. Lawyers like Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson and members of the NAACP legal team had to continue that fight,” Patterson said.

In 1956, Virginia’s United States Senator Harry F. Byrd called for Massive Resistance,  a group of laws intended to fight integration and cut off funds to schools that tried to integrate.

Several schools in Warren County, Charlottesville and Norfolk were closed. This came after those areas were in the process of integrating under a court order. In opposition to a federal court ordering the school to desegregate, Prince Edward County’s Board of Supervisors refused to fund their schools, which resulted in schools closing for five years.

Johns Cobbs says her sister had to move unexpectedly to finish her senior year. Only after the fact did Johns Cobbs learn why.

“Our parents had received information that there were threats on Barbara’s life. We were very upset that she was gone. It left a void for us,” Johns Cobbs said.

Johns relocated to Montgomery, Alabama where she lived with relatives.

Johns died in 1991. Johns Cobb said, “It was a big void in my life when she passed because she and I were close, and I looked up to her as my big sister and only sister, so I was devastated.”

In December 2020, Gov. Ralph Northam announced the Commission on Historical Statues in the United States had voted to have a statue of Johns represent Virginia in the U.S. Capitol.

She will replace Confederate General Robert E. Lee, whose statue was removed on December 21.

Johns Cobbs says she and her family were excited to hear her sister is being memorialized.

“I am so grateful to God that I have lived long enough to see all of the honors that have been bestowed on her since she passed,” Johns Cobbs said.

She says her sister leaves a significant legacy. 

“I want people to know that Barbara was a brave, courageous, and fearless young person who saw an injustice and decided to do something about it, and her actions changed the course of the nation.”

Plans for the new statue are underway. 

*CORRECTION: There were multiple court rulings on desegregation. An earlier version of this article implied a different order was what the Prince Edward County school system reacted to. We have updated the story to correct this detail.