Barbara Johns to Replace Robert E. Lee

Civil rights activist Barbara Johns as a high school student

Civil rights activist Barbara Johns as a high school student
Hall of Fame baseball player Johnny Bench once told me that you’re never too old to have heroes. One of mine is Barbara Johns, and I’m proud to say that soon a bronze sculpture of her will stand in the U.S. Capitol, replacing a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

Barbara Johns wasn’t just a participant in the civil rights movement, she triggered it. Barbara made her mark before Rosa Parks boarded a bus, before Dr. Martin Luther King marched, and before the Greensboro Four sat at the lunch counter. Barbara led a national movement for equality, and she did it at the ripe old age of 16.

In 1951 Barbara Johns was a junior at R.R. Moton High, an all-Black school in the Prince Edward County, Virginia town of Farmville. She was an exemplary student who enjoyed English, history, French, and music, and was a member of the debate team. Barbara was mature beyond her years and had a sense of social justice that was inspired by her uncle, The Rev. Vernon Johns, who, at the time was pastor of Dexter Ave. Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. (He would be succeeded in that role by Dr. King in 1952.)

Built in 1939, Moton was a small brick structure designed to hold 180 students. But by 1951, over 450 children were crammed into the school. Not only was the building over-crowded, it was also woefully inadequate for learning. There was no library, no cafeteria, no gym, and no science lab. To alleviate the overflow of students, the Prince Edward school board had several tar paper shacks erected adjacent to the main building. On rainy days, water poured through the leaky roofs, and on cold days students had to make do with a small stove. The stove was riddled with holes and hot coals would often pop out onto the floor. By contrast, just down the road stood the all-white high school, which had the best of everything. In those days, the concept of separate but equal was a cruel joke. Schools were separated by race for sure, but they were sure as hell not equal.

I began researching the Moton school saga about 30 years ago. Barbara had passed away by then, but I connected with some of her family and friends and was able to get a copy of Barbara’s unfinished manuscript soon after it was discovered in 1999. In it, Barbara wrote of the long walks she would take in the woods, contemplating the conditions of her school and of her dreams for a better one. 


I imagined that a great storm came through and blew down the main building and splattered the shacks to splinters, and out of this wreckage was a magnificent building, and the students were joyous. Then the reality would set in, and I would acknowledge that nothing magical was going to produce a new school.” I prayed to God, “Please let us have a new place where we won’t have to keep our coats on all day to stay warm. God, please help us. We are your children too.


Barbara then wrote about a defining incident that convinced her to take action.


One morning I was rushing around helping my brother and sister get down the hill to catch the bus, but I had forgot my lunch. I ran back up the hill to retrieve it, but in the meantime the bus had left. Later, the white school bus drove by. It was half empty and would have to drive past my school to get to the white school, but they wouldn’t let me ride with them. Right then and there I decided something had to be done about this inequality.


The action Barbara took would help trigger a national movement to provide an equal education for all students. On April 23, 1951, she enacted a carefully devised plan. First, she got the principal out of the building on a ruse, then she enlisted the aid of seven other students to deliver bogus notes to every teacher, advising them to have their students assemble in the auditorium. Barbara then addressed the student body and convinced them to stage a walkout. On the second day of the strike, Johns and a large group of students marched to the superintendent’s office where Barbara asked why Black students couldn’t just attend school with whites. The superintendent said that integration was against Virginia law, but promised that a new school was in the works for the Moton students. He lied about the new school. Even worse, he punished the protesting students by taking all of their buses out of commission. The strike lasted for two weeks, during which time Barbara received death threats. 

Barbara wrote to the NAACP and asked for help. Soon after, two attorneys arrived in Farmville to meet with Barbara and other student leaders. Eventually their case was folded into Brown v Board of Education, and by 1959, Prince Edward County schools were ordered to desegregate. But the racist county school board refused to comply, and they got around the law by closing all of their public schools, and then opening a makeshift private academy just for the white students to attend. Black students in the area became known as the Lost Generation because they were without a school for five years. Finally, in 1964, all public schools in Farmville were reopened when the Supreme Court ruled that Prince Edward’s racist scheme violated the 14th Amendment by denying Black students equal protection under the law. Still, it would be another 20 years before the county’s schools were fully integrated. Nevertheless, the state of public education had changed forever, and, in large part, we all have a 16-year-old girl to thank for it. 

Barbara Johns was a visionary and an activist, and if there was a Mt. Rushmore of Civil Rights leaders, she would be on it. For now, we’ll settle for having her likeness in the nation’s Capitol.

(The original Moton school has since been restored and today serves as a museum and a venue for community events. For more information or to make a donation, visit


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