BARBARA JOHNS was an 11th-grader in 1951 when, in a daring act of subterfuge, she sent her school principal into town on a wild goose chase, then urged all 450 of her fellow Black students to follow her on a walkout to protest shabby conditions at her Jim Crow-era school. Some were afraid they’d get in trouble, but Johns reassured them. “The Farmville jail isn’t big enough to hold us,” she said.
That was Farmville, Va., a tobacco farming community west of Richmond where the school for African American students lacked a gym, cafeteria or lockers and was so overcrowded that many students, bundled in overcoats in the winter, took classes in tar-paper shacks built to accommodate the overflow. The nearby school for White children had no such problems.
The 16-year-old’s act of defiance led to a lawsuit that landed in the Supreme Court, rolled into Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark desegregation case. Last week, a Virginia advisory committee recommended that a statue of the late Barbara Johns replace that of Robert E. Lee in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall. There it would stand alongside the figure of George Washington, the other statue representing the Old Dominion.
That would be an excellent choice, and Virginia’s General Assembly would be wise to approve it. For by her singular act of courage, she helped set in motion changes that reshaped Virginia’s, and America’s, basic concept of racial fairness.
Johns’s aim, when she led the student body on what became a two-week strike, was ambitious enough: to promote educational equality, she wanted the county to build a better school for Blacks. As an act of political imagination, her move was audacious; after all, this was four years before the bus boycott in Alabama and nine years before the lunch counter sit-ins in North Carolina.
Under Thurgood Marshall’s direction, the NAACP responded to her plea and seized on it, incorporating the case into a broader crusade to end school segregation. In federal court, Virginia refused, arguing that the difference in intellectual capacity between the races justified separate schools. NAACP lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court.
The rest is history — except it’s easy to forget how messy the history was. In Virginia, White officials mounted a campaign of “massive resistance” to the high court’s ruling, shutting down many schools statewide for years rather than complying with orders to integrate them. White students attended “private” schools established by the state, free of charge. Black students, in many cases, were left without formal education.
Johns, daughter of a farmer and a clerk for the federal government, was an unlikely catalyst. She had not previously been a student activist. And soon after the school strike, her parents, alarmed at the threats she received, sent her out of state to finish high school. She later graduated from Drexel University in Philadelphia, where she lived out her life.
What she possessed on that day in 1951 was the clear vision to perceive the injustice she lived through every day, and the initiative to call it out, thereby giving history a shove. In that way, she and Washington make a fine and fitting pair to represent Virginia.