April 23, 2018 is Virginia’s first Barbara Johns Day. The late civil rights activist is credited with leading a local movement to get equitably resourced schools. It began with a student walkout 67 years ago. Saraya Wintersmith reports on some of the efforts to keep that story alive.
Joy Speakes, remembers the day Barbara Johns appeared on stage in an impromtu assembly at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville. She was shocked. For one thing, she didn’t expect to see Johns on stage. For another, Johns, who Speakes recollects was normally quiet and polite, started banging her shoe on the auditorium lectern in an effort to get everyone’s attention.
“And then she started with her, I call it iconic, speech,” recalls Speakes.
As the story goes, Johns had enough of the overcrowding, leaky roofs, and second-hand textbooks that came with the racially segregated school. With a secret student planning committee, she plotted a scheme: to lure the principal off the school grounds, gather the entire student body into the auditorium and urge them to walk out of the school in a collective protest.
“She started to scriptures about a child should lead, and God was on our side, and that’s why we all should come together and go on strike and stay on strike until we get a new school,” said Speakes. “And, then one girl got up and she said ‘Well, what if they put us all in jail?’ and Barbara said ‘The jail isn’t big enough to hold us all.’”
The student body walked out with Johns that day and didn’t return for two weeks. Their action morphed into a lawsuit with more than 100 plaintiffs. Three years later, it reached the U.S. Supreme Court as part of the Brown v. Board of Education case that began the dismantling of lawful segregation. Of the five suits involved, Virginia’s was the only sparked by a student-led strike.
“We are really who we honor and i think it’s tragic that Barbara Johns isn’t here, but certainly her courage is something we should all know about,” said Virginia Rep. Tom Garrett who drafted the General Assembly’s 2017 resolution designating April 23 as Barbara Johns Day in Virginia. Garrett says he did not learn about Johns or the Moton High School strike until 2011 when he campaigned for the Virginia State Senate.
“That I should’ve studied history at a Virginia university, should be passionate about history, and not have heard of Barbara Johns is kinda mind-blowing to me,” he said, explaining the view that the Civil Rights Movement is as much a part of the American Revolution as the Civil War. “And the fact that this 16-year-old girl had the same courage as, say a Patrick Henry that she would stand up and speak to injustice at the risk of her very life and that we didn’t know who she was, i just felt like it needed to be told,” he said in an interview with WCVE.
Virginia lawmakers unanimously approved the resolution after Garrett took his seat in Congress. Ce says he’s now drafting a bill to award Johns a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal.
Last year, state leaders renamed the old Hotel Richmond in honor of Barbara Johns, and in 2008, state officials unveiled a more than $2 million civil rights memorial that sits in capitol square and features a depiction of johns among others.
Later this year, Virginia’s 2019 commemoration will launch a new history trails app designed to digitally guide explorers to sites like the old high school where the strike started - What is now the Robert Russa Moton Museum.
Inside its narrow halls, the wood floors creak as museum Managing Director Cameron Patterson walks through the six galleries. He says being in a place where history happened adds a unique dimension of understanding.
“To come into the Moton Museum, the look of this space - from the crack that you see in the back of the wall in the auditorium that came about as a result of the basketball hoop that hung, to the auditorium stage - I think to be here kinda just puts you in that period of time and i think it gives a deeper connection to what those students did.”
The museum has books, photos and news articles to help visitors learn about the time period. Patterson hopes visitors and those who only hear or read about Barbara Johns and Moton High will be inspired by a story of community and altruism.
“And I think you capture that spirit and that energy of Barbara and the other Moton students through the role and the impact that you have in your community. You capture that energy and spirit by the service that you give to others.”