For years, Maura Keaney has sent fourth-graders on a scavenger hunt into the past, asking students to traverse Virginia with their families in search of historical markers.
So when Keaney taught the students about Barbara Johns, a Black civil rights activist who led a student strike for equal education in Prince Edward County that eventually became part of Brown v. Board of Education, their next question was obvious.
Does Barbara Johns have a marker?
When Keaney looked it up and discovered she did not, the students could not understand why — although it’s unsurprising in a state where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee alone has accrued more than 200 markers and where out of 2,600 total markers, just 370 honor Black Virginians.
In early February, state officials rectified that omission, installing a marker honoring Johns in the town where she went to school, Farmville, Va. The white-and-black plate, which dubs Johns a “civil rights pioneer,” stands on the grounds of Johns’s former high school, now a museum, close to the site where she organized the student walkout.
It’s all because of Keaney’s fourth-graders, more than 50 of whom petitioned Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to advocate for the honor.
“I was surprised that they didn’t make one for her yet,” said 11-year-old Caleb Burley, one of the fourth-graders, “because she was a big part of making Blacks and Whites go to school together.”
His classmate Serena Anmuth, 11, added: “It was definitely unjust.”
“She should have a marker,” 11-year-old Javier Rodriguez-Aragon said, “so if people walk by, they’re going to learn about her life and what she did to help America.”
None of Keaney’s students nor Keaney herself have been able to visit the marker yet. For one thing, Farmville is a nearly three-hour drive from Fairfax County, where the children live and attend Laurel Ridge Elementary School. Plus, the coronavirus pandemic has rendered travel complicated.
But to celebrate in the Zoom era, the executive director of the Farmville museum, Cameron Patterson, tweeted a picture of the newly erected marker Feb. 11 and tagged Keaney, asking her to “please share with your students, [who] helped to make this happen.” Keaney emailed the photo to everyone in fourth grade, spurring excited replies from parents and students.
On a video call in the fall, Northam and first lady Pamela Northam personally thanked the students for their efforts. The governor also noted the state’s dearth of markers honoring Black Virginians.
“Our history is full of change-makers like Barbara Johns . . . their stories are a vital part of the Virginia story, and yet those stories have often gone untold,” Northam said before commending the children for their advocacy. “Meeting students like you is one of the best parts of my job.”
Patterson said the plaque’s installation marks a step forward for Farmville and his organization, the Robert Russa Moton Museum, because it means Virginia is starting to tell “the fuller story” of its past. Patterson said more people should know about the Black teenagers in Prince Edward County who helped lead the charge for equality in education — and especially about Barbara Johns, who died in 1991.
A little over a half-century ago, Johns, age 16, decided she had had enough of the poor quality of the only school for Black students in Farmville. Classes took place in chicken houses and farm buildings, heating was inadequate, and students often had to bring umbrellas to school when it rained because the roofs would leak, according to Justin Reid of the Moton Museum.
Johns convinced her classmates to walk out and demand a learning environment just as nice as the well-appointed White high school nearby. Then she got in touch with the NAACP, which led to a lawsuit — Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County — demanding integrated education. That suit was later incorporated into Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that led to the federally mandated desegregation of schools nationwide, making it the only student-led suit to be included.
“I always tell folks that Barbara Johns was the visionary,” Patterson said, “in a story of young people who really used the tools of a constitutional democracy to create change.”
There has been a recent burst of recognition for Johns. In 2013, the Moton Museum opened a permanent exhibit devoted to Johns, her peers and other residents of Prince Edward County who fought for justice, titled “Children of Courage.” In 2017, Virginia dedicated a state office building in her honor. And in December, a Virginia advisory committee recommended that a statue of Johns replace a statue of Robert E. Lee in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall, where it would stand adjacent to a statue of George Washington.
Still, when Keaney began teaching her fourth-graders about Johns last academic year, few knew her name.
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Keaney is not a history teacher but a school-based technology specialist with Fairfax County Public Schools with a hobby — traveling around the state to find historical markers. At her wedding, she used miniature historical markers to direct people where to sit.
When she was hired by Fairfax, Keaney’s passion for the markers spilled into her work in the form of the annual “History Hunters” scavenger hunt. Then early in the 2019-2020 academic year, she got an opportunity to utilize her love of history: She began co-teaching social studies classes, partly so she could model how to use online technology. She continued those lectures, as well as the scavenger hunt, through the coronavirus pandemic.
The reaction to her lesson on Johns was swift and strong. The kids told Keaney they thought Johns was “the most amazing person in history,” Keaney recalled.
“We found it unfair that we had never heard of her and neither had our parents,” Serena said. “We felt that we should do something about it.”
Spurred on by her students, Keaney researched how they could apply for a historical marker to honor Johns. But the cost — almost $2,000 — and the burdensome bureaucratic process they would have to navigate proved too daunting.
Then in January 2020, Northam announced he was holding the first “Black History Month Historical Marker Contest,” in which he invited Virginia teachers, students and their parents to submit suggestions for markers honoring people, events or themes related to Black history in the state.
The timing was perfect. Keaney could hardly believe it. She immediately encouraged her students to send in submissions. By the end-of-February deadline, her children had sent in 55 total drafts of a marker honoring Johns.
“Barbara was doing the strike she was hoping get blacks and whites to have equal treatment in school,” read one submitted by Caleb. “Barbara Johns impacted Virginia a lot.”
The news that their marker suggestion was among the winners — taking its place among 20 new plaques that will be installed statewide, including 10 specifically suggested by students — electrified Keaney’s fourth-graders.
Even though the announcement came on Juneteenth, meaning the kids were out of school, student after student messaged Keaney to tell her they couldn’t believe they had really done it.
“They influenced history,” Keaney said. “That marker, that iron sign, is going to outlast my lifetime and these kids’, too.”
For Caleb, the marker’s installation ushered in a sense of relief: Now more people would learn about Johns, he said, which was only right. For Javier, it was thrilling evidence that elected leaders sometimes heed students’ views: “My voice was heard by very important people in the government,” he said, referring to Northam.
For Serena, it was proof that children can change society.
“You read about all these people who did amazing things at young ages, such as Barbara Johns,” she said. “You think, ‘Oh wow, that’s amazing,’ but you never think that you can do something — but we did!”
And Olivia Szydlik just wishes Johns were still alive.
“I would tell her about the marker,” the 11-year-old said. “I would tell her that all of her hard work really paid off.”
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