The story of Barbara Johns and the road to integrated schools in Virginia

The story of Barbara Johns and the road to integrated schools in Virginia

PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY, Va. (WWBT) - In the heart of Farmville, sitting between Main Street and Griffin Boulevard stood a museum that was once an overcrowded, segregated high school in 1951.

Concerned parents asked the school superintendent for a new building, but it was met with little to no action.

John L. Watson was a student at the high school and he remembers the deplorable conditions.

“They built those God awful tar paper shacks around the main building and to make it even worse, when it rained, it rained on us in the classrooms you were sitting in, and on a cold day they had these potbelly stoves," Watson said. "If you weren’t close enough to the stove you were just cold in the room, and if you were too close, you were too warm. So how are you going to study in a room like that.”

In the heart of Farmville, sitting between Main Street and Griffin Boulevard stood a museum that was once an overcrowded, segregated high school in 1951.
In the heart of Farmville, sitting between Main Street and Griffin Boulevard stood a museum that was once an overcrowded, segregated high school in 1951. (Source: NBC12)

A replica of that tarpaper shack can be found inside the museum.

Historian Leah Brown takes you through the horrendous hardships faced by these students but also honors their tenacity in the midst of terrifying circumstances.

On April 23rd, 1951, 16-year-old Barbara Johns, would take the auditorium stage at Moton, and give a passionate speech encouraging her classmates to strike.

More than 400 students walked out and that strike would last for 10 days.

The strike lasted 10 days.
The strike lasted 10 days. (Source: NBC12)

NAACP lawyers Oliver Hill and Spotswood Robinson would then get involved, under a few conditions.

“The parents had to agree to support the students with the lawsuit, and they had to sue for integration,” Leah Brown said.

Dorothy Davis, also a student at Moton High School, along with her family was the first to sign on to the case, making her the lead plaintiff.

Strategically, five cases were put together to become - Brown vs. Board of Education.

"One from Virginia, South Carolina, DC, Delaware and Kansas. Kansas was the title case because it is not in the south, it’s saying that segregation was a national issue, not a southern issue,” says Brown. "Three years later in 1954/55, the Brown II decision, the Supreme Court ruled that schools had to desegregate with the quote “all deliberate speed.”

Because of the ambiguity of those words, many state officials - including those from Virginia - implemented policies that slowed or stopped integration altogether. It became known as “massive resistance.”

Whites-only schools began closing.

“The logic was if it’s a white school and it’s closed you can’t desegregate it," Brown said. “Whites-only private schools, like Prince Edward Academy, was created by segregationists. Each student was asked to pay $250 which in 1959/60 that was a lot of money, but there was no way an African American child could afford that. They weren’t even allowed in the school because it was private, and they can say who could and could not come in," Brown said.

Attorney General Robert Kennedy pushed for “Free Schools” in 1963.

“Not a public school, not a private school, but a free school, any child could come in and be welcomed,” Brown says. “Then in 1964, another court ruling, Griffin vs. School Board of Prince Edward County - would force public schools to reopen and integrate.

Barbara Johns never saw integration in Prince Edward County, after getting death threats, she moved to Alabama.”
Barbara Johns never saw integration in Prince Edward County, after getting death threats, she moved to Alabama.” (Source: NBC12)

Barbara Johns never saw integration in Prince Edward County, after getting death threats, she moved to Alabama.”

But her resilience on that fateful day made a world of difference.

In an interview before she passed, Barbara Johns summed it up, perfectly.

“We wanted so much here and had so little and we had talents and abilities here that weren’t being realized and I thought that was a tragic shame and that was basically what motivated me to see some change take place here,” Johns said. "There wasn’t any fear. I just felt that this is your moment, seize it.”

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