By Julie Rasicot
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 13, 2008
History came alive at Kingsview Middle School in Germantown as John A. Stokes described how he and fellow black high school students went on strike in 1951 to protest conditions in their rural Virginia schools.
Stokes was 19 when the students decided they would no longer tolerate the substandard schools provided for African Americans in Prince Edward County. The strike resulted in a lawsuit that ultimately became part of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the case in which the Supreme Court ruled that schools must be desegregated.
"Years ago we united, and we pulled something off that still puzzles people today," Stokes told students during a discussion of his 2007 book, "Students on Strike: Jim Crow, Civil Rights, Brown and Me." "This is a history that has been lost for many years, and people still have a hard time talking about it."
The visit by Stokes, whose stepgrandson Jamil Garrison attends the school, was the first of what school officials said they hoped would be a series of book talks. It was sponsored by the school's NAACP parent group and the Fathers' Circle, a group of parents focused on helping students succeed, Assistant Principal Deborah Higdon said.
Fifty copies of Stokes' book were purchased with a literacy grant and given to 47 children and three staff members. The students, who had been recommended by teachers, read the book and discussed it with Higdon in preparation for Stokes's visit.
"We study a lot of things about history, but very seldom do we get to bring people in who were part of history," Principal Dennis Queen told the students. "This is learning coming alive."
Stokes, a retired school principal who lives in Lanham, began his presentation with a demonstration of what it was like to live in the years following Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the Supreme Court in 1896 upheld the constitutionality of "separate but equal" accommodations for blacks and whites.
Handing out yellow and green index cards to 20 students, he pointed them to chairs set up like rows of bus seats. He asked students to pretend they were traveling south from New York. As the "bus" crossed the Mason-Dixon line in Delaware, where segregation laws went into effect, he told students to get out of their seats.
"Everyone with a yellow card, you all sit in front first," he said. He told the remaining students to fill in the other seats and then asked them about how they felt about their treatment.
"Discriminated," "hurt" and "angry" came the replies.
"We were angry, too, but we could do nothing about it," Stokes said.
It took more than 40 years before Stokes, who organized the school strike with his twin sister, Carrie, and fellow student Barbara Johns, began to talk about the events of 1951. The rawness of the emotional pain of his experiences was evident as he explained to the middle-schoolers what led to the strike.
Using a slide show, Stokes illustrated the stark differences between the well-equipped schools for whites in Prince Edward County and those for blacks, most of which had no indoor plumbing. Stokes's high school, built for 180 students, served 450.
"Guess what was on the outside of those buildings?" he said, handing around a piece of tar paper and showing a slide of three shacks built to handle overcrowding at Robert R. Moton High School. "We knew we were being programmed for failure," he said.
Once the strike began, the students enlisted the help of the NAACP. A few weeks later, 67 parents and 117 students signed a petition authorizing the NAACP to represent them in a lawsuit that eventually became part of Brown v. Board of Education. After the Supreme Court ruled that schools must be desegregated, Prince Edward officials closed public schools from 1959 to 1964.
With the engaging manner of a veteran educator, Stokes told students to value their education and the opportunities it affords.
"Know what your GPAs are and know what your SATs are. If you keep those GPAs high enough, you can go to school for free," he said. "Don't blow it. There are kids in other countries who are dying to be in your position."
When it came time for students to ask questions, eighth-grader Nathan Tripp of Germantown wanted to know what Stokes would change about his experience if he could.
"I would change the hearts of the people against me," Stokes replied. "We were right in what we did. History proved we were on the right track."
Stokes's strong feelings about his experiences came to the surface again when he paused and seemed to choke up after seventh-grader Kanaya Allen of Potomac asked whether he had shared his story with students when he taught in Baltimore schools. "I couldn't," he said after a long pause. "I never shared it with my own children. I just started talking about this in 1997."
As students lined up for autographs after the talk, many said they had enjoyed the opportunity to hear Stokes discuss what they had read in his book.
"It was a great experience and very interesting. I was proud to be a part of it. It's something that I will remember for the rest of my life," Tripp said. "It helped answer a lot of the other questions I had."
"He's a very brave man," seventh-grader William Ping of Germantown said, "because I could tell at sometimes, it was very hard to tell his experiences."