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Civil rights leader Barbara Johns may replace Robert E. Lee as a statue in the U.S. Capitol

Roderick Johns, brother of civil rights activist Barbara Rose Johns, holds a photo of his sister in 2008 at the dedication of the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial in Richmond.
Roderick Johns, brother of civil rights activist Barbara Rose Johns, holds a photo of his sister in 2008 at the dedication of the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial in Richmond. (Steve Helber/AP)

RICHMOND — A statue of a Black teenage girl who dared challenge segregation in Virginia schools could soon stand beside George Washington in the U.S. Capitol.

Barbara Rose Johns, who as a 16-year-old in 1951 led a protest of poor learning conditions for Black students in Farmville and helped dismantle school segregation nationwide, has been chosen by an advisory commission to replace Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee as one of two figures representing Virginia in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall.

The choice “represents the values of today’s Virginians,” the commission’s chairwoman, state Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), said in a news release.

The General Assembly must approve the pick for the place of honor alongside Washington, Virginia’s other representative. Both statues went up in 1909.

The eight-member commission, appointed by the legislature and Gov. Ralph Northam (D), consists of lawmakers, historians and citizens who received input from Virginia residents in hearings over the past few months.

A long menu of suggested names was whittled down to five finalists that the commission considered Wednesday:

●Johns, whose high school walkout contributed to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education;

●Oliver Hill Sr., a noted civil rights attorney who argued Johns’s case, which was rolled into the Brown case;

●Maggie Lena Walker, a Richmond business leader who in 1903 became the first Black woman to charter a bank in the United States;

●John Mercer Langston, who in 1890 became the first African American to represent Virginia in Congress;

●Pocahontas, the legendary daughter of the powerful Powhatan chief who encountered the English settlers at Jamestown and is reputed to have saved the life of colonist John Smith.

Northam praised the choice of Johns, saying in a statement that “her idealism, courage, and conviction will continue to inspire Virginians, and Americans, to confront inequities and fight for meaningful change now and for generations to come.”

He proposed spending $500,000 to replace the Lee statue in a state budget presented Wednesday.

Johns, who died in 1991 at 56, was born in New York City and moved to Prince Edward County, outside Farmville, during World War II. After suffering through years of poor conditions in Black-only schools, watching White students ride by in comfortable buses to well-maintained buildings with heat and new books, Johns led a walkout at Robert Russa Moton High School.

Virginia dedicates state office building in honor of civil rights pioneer

The action got the attention of Hill, an NAACP lawyer, and his partner, Spottswood Robinson, who filed a federal suit against the school system. Eventually rolled into the landmark Supreme Court case, the suit helped tear down segregation nationwide. It led to a years-long program of “massive resistance” in Virginia in which some school systems closed rather than integrate.

White children went to private schools, while a generation of Black children missed years of education.

Johns has become increasingly recognized in recent years. A statue of her and other civil rights figures stands on Richmond’s Capitol Square, and the building that houses the state attorney general’s office was renamed in her honor.

The commission was created this year by the General Assembly with a twofold mission — to decide whether Lee should be replaced and, if so, to recommend a replacement.

Northam proposes major effort to reimagine public space around Lee statue in Richmond

In July, the panel voted unanimously that Lee should come down, and Northam notified the U.S. Capitol. The action came as Richmond confronted its Confederate legacy in response to the summer of protests over racial inequity, triggered by the killing of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police.

Northam ordered the removal of a massive, state-owned statue of Lee on Richmond’s Monument Avenue in June — and a brother of Johns’s spoke at the announcement. And while that action is now tied up in a court battle, the city’s other Confederate monuments are mostly gone. Some were toppled by protesters, and most of the rest were removed on the orders of Mayor Levar Stoney (D).

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) ordered the removal in July of a life-size statue of Lee and busts of other Confederate figures from the Virginia Capitol’s historic Old House Chamber.

The General Assembly will vote on the commission’s recommendation during the 2021 session, which convenes Jan. 13.

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