Author: Margaret Edds

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Barbara Rose Johns Powell

Barbara Rose Johns Powell conceived and executed a 1951 student walkout at the all-Black Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, precipitating one of five legal cases that would be consolidated into the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned segregated public schools. Her revolutionary action and courageous spirit resulted in her selection in 2020 as one of two Virginians to represent the state in the National Statuary Hall Collection at the U.S. Capitol. Aged sixteen at the time of the protest, Johns strategized for months with a select group of fellow students before launching the two-week strike on April 23, 1951. The students initially sought a new Black high school comparable to the far superior school then serving white students in Prince Edward County. However, after conferring with Oliver W. Hill and Spottswood William Robinson III, attorneys for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the students and their parents agreed to push instead for a desegregated high school. Robinson filed the promised lawsuit—Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County—in federal district court in Richmond on May 23, 1951, with law partners Hill and Martin A. Martin joining him as signatories. Seventy-four Prince Edward County parents, representing 118 Moton students, including Johns, agreed to serve as plaintiffs. The following autumn, fearing for their daughter’s safety, Johns’s parents sent her to Montgomery, Alabama, for her senior year of high school. After graduating from the Alabama State College Laboratory High School in 1952, Johns attended Spelman College in Atlanta. At age nineteen, she interrupted her studies to marry William Holland Rowland Powell, who later became a Baptist minister in the Philadelphia area. After her bold teenage stand against injustice, she lived a relatively quiet life, giving birth to five children, working as a librarian in the Philadelphia school system for two decades, and eventually completing a college degree from Drexel University in 1979. She died of bone cancer in Philadelphia on September 25, 1991, at age fifty-six.

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Robinson, Spottswood William III (1916–1998)

Spottswood William Robinson III was a constitutional lawyer, legal scholar, and jurist who helped devise and execute the legal strategies that sped the demise of Jim Crow segregation in the 1940s and 1950s. With his legal partner, Oliver W. Hill, Robinson formed the South’s most significant grassroots legal team in combating segregated housing, education, and transportation during the era. In conjunction with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), he argued Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County(1954)before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case became one of five combined into the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) decision striking down segregated public schools. Robinson initiated Morgan v. Virginia (1946), a seminal, early victory in the fight to desegregate trains and buses, and he played a critical role in major cases undermining enforcement of restrictive covenants in residential property sales. He served as southeastern regional counsel for the LDF throughout the 1950s. After a three-year stint as dean of the Howard University School of Law, Robinson received a recess appointment by President Lyndon Johnson to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in January 1964, becoming the first African American to sit on that court. Two years later, Robinson was elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, again breaking a racial barrier. He served on the circuit court for twenty-three years, including five year as chief judge. He took senior status on the court in 1989 and died at his home in Richmond in 1998.

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Paxton, Millie Lawson Bethell (1875–1939)

Millie Lawson Bethell Paxton was a civic leader who worked toward a more inclusive democracy in Roanoke. She worked to redress racial inequality on many fronts as organizer of the city’s first Colored Women’s Voting Club, leader of a local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People membership drive, Roanoke chair of the Better Homes in America organization, founding president of the Ideal Garden Club, and president of the auxiliary at the local Burrell Memorial Hospital, a pioneering health-care facility for African Americans. Paxton was an officer or member of almost every African American women’s organization in Roanoke including the Independent Order of Calanthe, Young Women’s Christian Association, and Virginia State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. She also raised three children as a single mother and worked in Roanoke’s African American schools. Paxton died on July 2, 1939.

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