Although Barbara Johns was born in New York City, her family was rooted in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Her father, Robert, and mother, Violet, had migrated north to find work, like so many other African Americans.
During World War II, Johns lived on a tobacco farm with her maternal grandmother Mary Croner. She picked tobacco in her free time and also worked in the country store owned by her uncle, Reverend Vernon Johns, who was a strong influence on her life. He was a prominent member of the black community in Prince Edward County and had a reputation as a militant minister. Barbara's grandmothers on both sides of the family, Mary Croner and Sally Johns, were both strong women who were not afraid of whites.
In 1951, Barbara was a 16-year-old junior at the segregated Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia. Frustrated by the refusal of the local school board to build a new high school for black students, she decided that something had to be done to change the situation. The school she attended was constructed to hold slightly more than 200 students, and already had twice that number. Classes were held on school buses and in the auditorium. When parents appealed to the school board for a new school, the board put up several tar-paper shacks as a stopgap measure to accommodate the overflow of students. Johns met with several students she could trust and asked if they would help her organize a student strike; they agreed.
Their plan was to get the principal away from the building and then call the entire student body together to vote on the strike. They arranged to have someone report to the principal that some students were downtown causing trouble. When the principal left the building, the strike committee called all the students together in the auditorium and Johns revealed her plans for a strike. The students agreed to walk out and almost all of them received their parents' support.
They then asked the NAACP to represent and advise them. The NAACP agreed to help them as long as they were willing to sue for an integrated school, not simply one that was equal to the white school. At a community meeting, Johns silenced the few adults opposed to the suit. The parents overwhelmingly supported the strike. The Farmville case became of one of the five cases that the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka when it declared segregation unconstitutional in 1954.
--adapted from the website The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow
Narrator: For Thurgood Marshall, now the chief attorney for the NAACP, the time has finally come to strike directly at the heart of legal segregation. Marshall looks for black families in a few local communities courageous enough to sue for integrated schools in the federal courts. In 1951, the NAACP unexpectedly discovers one of those communities in Farmville, Virginia, deep in the tobacco-growing region of Prince Edward County.
Kennell Jackson: The black community in Farmville, Virginia in the 1950s, in the late ‘40s was an ambitious community. And it...it...it seemed that, in fact, you know that the public school system was what I refer to as a great engine. The black public schools were a great engine of achievement and ambition on the part of students.
John Watson: I credit where I am today to my...what I got in high school. I didn’t need an integrated education. I didn’t need an integrated student body to get a good education. Our teachers, I mean they were on us all the time. It wasn’t about sitting beside a given person. It was about a quality education. And we could no longer get the quality education we needed in this building because we had grown out of the building.
Former Student: We never saw the white schools inside.
Edna Allen Bledsoe: I had no idea what the high school was like. And when I walked over there and I...I...this still blows my mind, they had...they had like an atrium in the center of the school, where you could walk out of the cafeteria and kind of sit in the garden and eat. Damn, we didn’t even have a cafeteria [laughter], let alone where you could go after you got your food. But you know the...the wide halls. The building was just absolutely gorgeous. And I just couldn’t believe that this is what they had for a building, and I’m sitting up there with an umbrella up on rainy days so that ink wouldn’t run on my paper.
Bryan Stevenson: It's just really difficult to kind of know how to think about yourself when you can't go to a good public school because you're not good enough, when you can't get basic services because you're not good enough. This kind of, kind of psychic harm, I mean there's a lot of real economic harms and physical harms, but it's the psychic harm that really makes you begin to disrespect yourself.
Narrator: As the black population of Farmville increased, instead of a new school, the students were housed in tar paper shacks.
Hodges Brown: We just didn't have the facilities that was really necessary, and sometime the teachers would take the kids on the school bus, take 'em on the school bus and teach a class.
John Lancaster: We decided to try to get adequate facilities for our kids through a petition. And I remember very specifically one board member looked at it and said, if we build a school like that, every Tom, Dick and Harry would be going to school. And that was the first time that it ever really dawned upon me that actually it wasn’t any intention for us to go to school.
Vera Allen: In the first place the school board didn’t want us there. They didn’t like any type of protest to what they were doing, because they thought that they were doing right, and they...they always specified we’re doing according to Virginia laws.
Samuel Dubois Cook: Because whites believed then in gradualism, they called it gradualism in those days, so forth. “Things will change, just give it time.” It has been suggested, you know, about three hundred years - how much time do you need?
Barbara Johns (Newsreel) We wanted so much here and had so little. And we had talents and abilities here that weren’t really being realized. And I thought that was a tragic shame. And that’s basically what motivated me to want to see some change take place here.
Narrator: In 1951 Barbara Johns, then a sixteen-year-old junior and niece of activist Reverend Vernon Johns, decides to organize a student strike at the Robert Russa Moton High School.
Barbara Johns: (Barbara Johns Newsreel) There wasn’t any fear. I just felt it’s your moment. Seize it.
Edwina Allen: Barbara had decided, she and these other student leaders had decided that this is what they were going to do. They were going to get...get a representative from each grade and have that person be responsible for telling the other students. And she emphasized that we should keep it a secret.
John Watson: Mr. Jones was the principal. We had to get him off campus because we knew if Mr. Jones was on campus, there was no way there was going to be a strike. He was a very strong leader, and a very highly respected man. So, we went home and we pretended we were businessmen calling in telling him that some students were downtown making disturbances and would he please come down and...and take care of it? When one of us saw him, then that person called the other two and said, “Well, he’s gone.” And we all came, and the...the three of us came back to the campus.
Joan Johns Cobb: When we got to the assembly, Barbara came in and walked up on the stage. And I remember saying to myself, what is going on? Why is she up there? And she started to talk. And she was talking so forcefully and she told us about how, uh, the conditions were very bad at the school and uh, you know, she needed everyone’s cooperation and she realized this was a surprise but they had to keep it that way so that it wouldn’t leak and that,uh, only a few people knew about it.
Carl Allen: Barbara started out, of course, and then we just talked and told them “strike this school.”
John A. Stokes: And it became a cheering session. What do you want to do? We want to strike! When do you want to strike? Today! You know and all of this. So, (laughter) it really was a rallying situation.
Joan Johns Cobb: I remember sitting in my seat and sort of cowering down because I couldn’t believe it, first of all. The first reaction I had was fear. I thought, oh my goodness, what’s going to happen to us now?
John A. Stokes: Everyone...a lot of people were scared. Some of Barbara’s closest friends were scared to death for her. They said, “Why did you do that?” She said, “We have to make a change.” And I mean right now, you know Barbara was very dynamic when she wasn't quiet.
Narrator: The students marched down the street to the superintendent's office.
John Watson: We come to the office and this poor secretary almost had a heart attack. [laughter] So, she goes, tells Mr. (name) that...that these students are here. So, we go in his office. He promised that he was going to rain down the wrath of God on all of us for what we were doing. And our parents were going to lose their jobs.
John A. Stokes: He said, you're upstarts. And you know, you need to go ahead back to school before all your parents are...are in jail. And this is what frightened us when he said our parents were going to jail. And a member of my family says, “How big is the Farmville Jail?” And that was it. From that point on it was no stopping for us.
Edna Allen Bledsoe: The initial reaction was to cut off the economic livelihood of folk and that of course was going to bring them in line. And you know Mr. Jones, the principal, was fired. Mama was fired and daddy was fired.
Joan Johns Cobb: A cross was burned in our yard after the school strike. And my parents send Barbara to Montgomery, Alabama to live with my Uncle Vernon because they were afraid for her life because they had received threats.
Narrator: Responding to the crisis, NAACP lawyers come to Farmville to assess the resolve of the community.
John A. Stokes: It was just like my watching Jackie Robinson in Ebbetts Field. It was the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen. And they came in there and they were really and truly behind us. They were astounded to find that these people who had been dormant and quiet for so long were ready to back their children. Then of course, uh Spottswood Robinson spoke up. And he said, “If you’re really ready to back them, then you have to sign this petition.” And that’s when we found out how we could separate the wheat from the chaff in the black community because some of the blacks didn’t sign. As you know, my mother and father signed.
Narrator: The NAACP takes up the students' cause, adding the Farmville case to a series of suits that will take the Russa Moton students' challenge to Jim Crow all the way to the United States Supreme Court. It was the culmination of a twenty-year legal campaign. In 1934, the NAACP’s chief legal counsel, Charles Hamilton Houston, had realized that the battle against Jim Crow had to be fought in the courts - that only through a change in the constitutional interpretation of civil rights could the "separate but equal" justification for segregation be brought to an end. With this new strategy, Houston and Thurgood Marshall had aimed squarely at the heart of Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 ruling that had made legal segregation possible. On May 17, 1954, Houston's vision became a reality. In a case known as Brown v. the Board of Education, the Supreme Court upheld the Farmville students' claim for better schools. Speaking for the unanimous court, Chief Justice Earl Warren declared, “In the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place.”
Kennel Jackson: I think, believe it or not, we had the idealism of American young people about America. Ah, and I think that that was a very important compelling and driving force in the way that these Prince Edward blacks faced the world. That we saw our...our history as in evolving into the American story in some way.
John Watson: The best moment was in 1954 when the Supreme Court overturned segregation in schools. That was the best moment. All the rest of it went for...for that. Even though when we started, we didn’t start for that but that was the best moment.
John A. Stokes: When I heard about the historic decision, I said, “Thank God. Thank God. At last someone has listened to us.” And those were my very words. “Someone has listened to us.” Hopefully, we shall see a change.
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