Barbara Rose Johns

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Plaque on Virginia Capitol Grounds commemorating Barbara Johns' initiative in integrating Virginia schools

Barbara Rose Johns (1935–1991) was a young American civil rights hero who in 1951, at the age of 16, led a student strike for equal education at Moton High School in Farmville, Prince Edward County, Virginia. After securing NAACP legal support, her suit became part of the historic 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, in which the court ruled against "separate but equal" and thus ended de jure segregation in American public schools. Prince Edward County ultimately responded to the Brown Decision by closing its public schools from 1959 to 1964, the longest period of Massive Resistance in the nation's history.

Early life[edit]

Barbara Rose Johns 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, Barbara 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.

Barbara’s uncle was the prominent Reverend Vernon Johns, an outspoken activist for civil rights. When he visited Barbara and her family, he would ask the children questions about black history.[1] This motivated Barbara and her siblings to study black history, and Barbara, as well as her siblings, was influenced by Reverend Johns and his outspoken nature.

Moton High School[edit]

While living in Prince Edward County, Barbara 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. Barbara’s school was designed and built to hold roughly 200 students, though by 1951 enrollment was twice that number.[2] According to a first-person account from Barbara’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.[1]

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.[2] Frustrated with the separate and unequal facilities, Barbara decided to take action.

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Activist legacy[edit]

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.[3]

  • Branch, Taylor (1989). Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63. Touchstone. 
  • Smith, Bob (1966). They Closed Their Schools: Prince Edward County, Virginia 1951-1964. 
  • John A. Stokes with Lois Wolfe, Students on Strike: Jim Crown, Civil Rights, 'Brown,' and Me, A Memoir, Washington, DC: National Geographic Press, 2008

See Richard Kluger,"Stick With Us," Simple Justice Vintage: 1974: 454-480.

External links[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "The History of Jim Crow". The History of Jim Crow. Archived from the original on 1 March 2007. Retrieved 2007-03-13. 
  2. ^ a b Richard Wormser. "The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.Jim Crow Stories.People.Barbara Johns". The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow. PBS. Archived from the original on 8 March 2007. Retrieved 2007-03-13. 
  3. ^ Bill Medic. "Pro Youth Pages Black History blind spot". Pro Youth Pages. Retrieved 2008-07-12.