RICHMOND — The building where Virginia politicians plotted to close public schools rather than integrate was renamed Thursday in honor of the young African American girl who defied and ultimately defeated them.
Barbara Rose Johns was 16 when she led a walkout of students at her segregated high school in the town of Farmville in 1951 to protest poor conditions. Black students had to wear coats and build fires in the little tar-paper shacks in which many of their classes were held.
Long before the civil rights movement of the next decade, Johns’s case became a major component of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, a ruling that declared racial segregation in public schools to be illegal.
Johns died in 1991, but on Thursday Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) officially renamed the Ninth Street office building the Barbara Johns Building.
“In seeing an injustice, she decided to do something about it. She stood up for what she believed, and she made a difference,” Johns’s younger sister, Joan Johns Cobbs, said at the dedication ceremony. “She has made us so proud of her. I wish she could’ve been able to experience what is happening to her today.”
Cobbs addressed an audience of about 200 in the building’s lobby, a large portrait of her sister in cap and gown to one side. High above the polished marble floors were stained glass skylights bearing the crest of the old Hotel Richmond, the building’s name in the 1950s and ’60s.
In those days, it was the unofficial headquarters of the Byrd machine, which produced a string of governors who followed Harry F. Byrd Sr. and held court in one of the hotel’s ballrooms. A statue of Byrd stands just across the street on Capitol Square.
When Johns’s case prevailed — championed by lawyers Oliver Hill, Spottswood Robinson III and Thurgood Marshall — Virginia responded with massive resistance, closing public schools rather than letting blacks and whites attend together.
Cobbs said she felt fear in those days that the Ku Klux Klan would take her sister away. But Barbara, she said, never backed down. She read a long passage from her sister’s diary, in which Barbara Johns described the confusion and sense of injustice she felt as a young girl in such shabby school facilities.
After a teacher challenged her to do something about it, Johns fantasized about a great storm blowing down her school and a rich man building a new one. Chopping wood, sitting by a stream and in bed at night, Barbara Johns turned the problem over and over in her mind.
One night, after missing her school bus and seeing the white students’ bus whiz by without stopping, Johns had an epiphany: The students would go on strike.
Even then, as she dreamed of defiance, the young girl had a naive faith that everything would work out fine. “They would sympathize with our plight and would grant us a new school building and it would be grand,” Cobbs read from her sister’s words.
Instead, there were years of struggle. Prince Edward County eventually shut down its public schools for five years, depriving a generation of black students of an education while whites went to a new private academy.
Johns herself faded from view for a time but is enjoying new fame as state officials highlight her as the kind of hero Virginia loves — the first to do something historic. “And I remind everybody, think of the times,” McAuliffe said at the ceremony. “This was before Little Rock Nine, this was before Rosa Parks, this was before Martin Luther King. This was a 16-year-old girl who said, ‘We will not tolerate separate and unequal.’ ”
Today the Johns building, renovated over the past three years at a cost of $46 million, houses the offices of state Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D). His chief deputy, Cynthia E. Hudson, hosted the dedication ceremony.
Hudson said that as an African American, her own presence was a tribute to Johns, “to whom I am personally indebted for her role in making it possible for me to speak to you today. . . . And quite frankly, to whom we’re all personally indebted for helping to change the course of our state’s and our nation’s history.”
The renovation was aimed at restoring the building’s former grandeur, but there have been changes. Three new words now top the front windows that look out toward the Byrd statue: Equality. Opportunity. Justice.