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From Schoolgirl to Heroine

Barbara Johns will stand in the halls of Congress

October 2022

by Steven Johnson, Staff Writer

On April 23, 1951, 16-year-old Barbara Johns stood in front of her classmates at the overcrowded, underheated, all-Black Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Va., and led the most consequential student walkout of the civil rights era.

An exhibit panel located in the Moton Museum, Farmville, Va.

Now, the determined teenager is a few steps away from becoming one of the most important symbols of the state. In late July, a commission on historic statues selected a sculptor for a statue of Johns to be placed in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.

The statue will stand aside George Washington and replace one of Robert E. Lee that workers removed in December 2020.

In February 2020, Cooperative Living profiled her story, and Prince Edward County’s defiant decision to shut down public education for five years, rather than integrate it. That story is at co-opliving.com/massivestruggle.

Johns led a strike by 450 students, protesting miserable conditions at the school, now a museum, where rain fell through the roofs of tar-paper shacks used as classrooms. The strike attracted the attention of the NAACP, which filed a lawsuit on behalf of students and parents that became part of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.

Joy Cabarrus Speakes was there as a 12-year-old student, and recalls one classmate asking Johns, “Well, what if they lock us up and put us in jail?” Responded Johns: “The jail is not big enough to hold us all.”

About $500,000 has been appropriated for the project. Hounded by death threats, Johns moved to Alabama, graduated from Drexel University and became a librarian in Philadelphia. She died in 1991.

“Before the sit-ins in Greensboro, before the Montgomery bus boycott, there was the student strike here in 1951, led by Barbara Johns,” says Cameron Patterson, executive director of the Robert Russa Moton Museum.