ENTRY

Powell, Barbara Rose Johns

SUMMARY

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.

Early Years

Barbara Rose Johns was born on March 6, 1935, in New York City, the first of Violet Adele Spencer Johns and Robert Melvin Johns’s five children. The young couple had moved to Harlem from their birthplaces in Prince Edward County to find work during the Great Depression. Violet Johns’s employment as a domestic worker and Robert Johns’s as a handyman did little to improve their finances, so when their daughter was fourteen months old, the couple returned to Prince Edward County. For a time, they minded a small country store in the Darlington Heights section of the county belonging to Robert Johns’s older brother, Vernon Johns, a celebrated minister. Faced with the financial challenges of a growing family, the Johnses traveled north again in 1942, this time to Washington, D.C. Violet Johns found government work and Robert Johns was drafted into the U.S. Army that same year. Concerned about raising her children alone, Violet Johns transported seven-year-old Barbara and her two younger siblings back to Prince Edward County. In a personal journal, Barbara Johns described the trip from Washington to Farmville as “exciting—mainly because it was my 1st train ride, but mostly because it was crowded with soldiers.… I was particularly impressed by them because my own Daddy had been called into the army and though I had not seen him in his uniform—I imagined he must look as handsome as these men.” Violet Johns left the children in the care of her mother, Mary Spencer Croner, and returned to Washington to do clerical work at the Navy Department.

In her journal, Barbara Johns recalled fondly the years spent on her grandmother’s farm, a 175-acre tract on which Mary Croner and her second husband raised pigs, cows, tobacco, corn, and other crops. “My days at my grandmother’s house were fun filled and chore filled,” Johns wrote. “In fact, one seldom got a chance to sit down and rest before the familiar cry of Barbree (as she called me) came…. I then rushed to feed the chickens, pick up chips for the wood stove, run to the spring for a bucket of cool, fresh water, gather the eggs, or do some other household chore that was needed.”

While on a furlough, Robert Johns elected to move his children to the home of his mother, Sallie Price Johns, also in Prince Edward County. There, young Barbara Johns came in closer contact with the learned and inquisitive mind of her uncle Vernon Johns, who periodically shared the residence, and the forthright pluck of Sallie Johns herself. According to Joan Johns Cobbs, Barbara Johns’s younger sister, the family thought Barbara mirrored Sallie Johns’s strong-willed independence. At her new home, Barbara Johns wrote, “life became less chore filled, more reading, writing oriented and certainly more enlivened by the spirited exchange of my Grandparents. She [Sallie Johns] argued good naturedly, but nevertheless argued about everything from when the war would end [and] who was likely to win to how much sugar a sane person should put in a cup of coffee.” At times, “to avoid all the ruckus,” Johns said she roamed the woods, communing with nature and seeking a quiet place to read and think.

When the war ended, the family reunited in Prince Edward County. Once again, Robert Johns operated Vernon Johns’s country store, while preparing to build a family home on 127 acres of nearby land purchased from his brother. Periodically, due to financial necessity, Violet Johns returned to work in Washington, leaving her eldest daughter in charge of helping feed and dress her younger siblings. “I had a great deal of responsibility thrust upon my shoulders both outside in the fields and inside the house,” Johns recalled in her journal. Meanwhile, she benefitted from her uncle’s large library, delving into the encyclopedia and such books as Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery (1901), Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), and H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898). In a 1961 interview with Bob Smith, author of They Closed Their Schools: Prince Edward County, Virginia 1951–1964 (1965), Violet Johns took note of her brother-in-law’s influence on her daughter. “Anything she believed in she was determined to continue to believe in and if you wanted to change her mind you had to give a lot of reasons…. She was very outspoken, a little like her Uncle Vernon in that respect.” Over time, a multigenerational family including siblings Joan, Ernest, Roderick, and Robert and grandmother Sallie Johns, as well as Violet and Robert Johns, shared the newly constructed farmhouse that became the family home.

Student Strike

Robert Russa Moton High School

After Johns entered the Moton School in eighth grade, her sheltered world expanded. Previously, she and her siblings had attended a one-room elementary school that also served as a Sunday School, tucked into the piney woods near their home. As she advanced, a growing list of Moton activities, including the New Homemakers of America, the high school chorus, and the student council, led Johns to travel across Virginia. She visited superior Black school facilities such as Huntington High School in Newport News and began to chafe at the obvious racial imbalances in Black and white education. The Moton School had been overcrowded almost since the day it opened in 1939. By the time Johns arrived there in the late 1940s, a building intended for 180 students had been stretched to accommodate about two and a half times that number. Classes were squeezed into every available nook, including the auditorium, school buses, and three temporary wood-frame outbuildings. Swathed in smelly tar paper, those structures bore an unsettling resemblance to chicken coops. They challenged students to stay warm in frigid weather and dry on rainy days. The complex had no cafeteria, no science laboratory, no gymnasium, and no industrial arts or woodworking shop. As court testimony in the legal case growing out of the student strike would later affirm, the academic rigor of the Moton School was equally deficient. Among the courses available at the local white high school and not at Moton were trigonometry, physics, world history, geography, and Latin, plus various industrial arts classes.

Provoked by the inadequacies, Johns approached her favorite teacher, Inez Davenport, to ask her advice. Earlier, the music teacher had told a class about a student strike in Massachusetts in support of higher teacher salaries. When Johns fumed about the conditions at Moton, Davenport replied with a simple question: “Why don’t you do something about it?” Recalling the incident in her journal, Johns said she first felt dismissed by the query. Nonetheless, Johns wrote, she continued to think about the challenge, sometimes praying, “Please let us have a warm place to stay where we won’t have to keep our coats on all day to stay warm.” Then, in the autumn of 1950, an incident occurred that cemented her determination to act. After missing the school bus, Johns stood by the side of the road for over an hour, hoping that a passerby would offer a lift into town. Eventually, a half-empty school bus carrying white children to Farmville High School drove by without stopping. “Right then and there, I decided indeed something had to be done about this inequality,” Johns wrote in her journal. That night, what she believed to be a divinely inspired plan began to form in her mind. The next day, she set about executing it. She approached a handful of trusted fellow students, including twins Carrie and John Stokes, and summoned them to a private huddle on the concrete bleachers of the athletic field. There she planted the seeds for a walkout the following spring. Over the next several months, the collaborators gradually expanded their ranks, taking care to include only top students whom Johns could trust.

Protest Sign at Robert Russa Moton High School

Finally, on the morning of April 23, 1951, the planning reached fruition. Disguising his voice, John Watson, one of the co-conspirators, telephoned the principal’s office, alleging that some Moton students were causing trouble at the bus station downtown. As hoped, Principal M. Boyd Jones left the school to investigate. Then the students sprang into action. They distributed a note on which Johns had forged Jones’s initials directing teachers to bring their students to the auditorium for an assembly. Once the students had taken their seats, someone drew open the curtains cordoning off the stage, revealing the student leaders, including Johns. Stepping to the lectern, she directed the teachers to leave. Most did. Then she informed her fellow students that the time had come to take a stand against the gross inadequacies in their school building. She urged the students to join the organizers in walking out of the building and refusing to return until local officials committed to a new structure. Most students accepted the challenge and followed Johns outdoors. Later that day, the organizing committee tried unsuccessfully to meet with Superintendent Thomas J. McIlwaine. When they did meet the following day, McIlwaine insisted that county was moving as rapidly as it could to improve conditions at Moton. He impatiently—and unsuccessfully—ordered the students back to class.

Legal Action

Oliver W. Hill at the General Assembly

Determined to resist such demands, Barbara Johns and Carrie Stokes penned a letter to the Richmond-based law firm of Hill, Martin & Robinson. “Gentlemen: We hate to impose as we are doing, but under the circumstances that we are facing, we have to ask for your help,” they began. “Please we beg you to come down at the first of this week.… We will provide a place for you to stay. We will go into detail when you arrive.” Oliver Hill had headed the legal committee of the NAACP Virginia State Conference of Branches most years since the early 1940s. Spottswood Robinson had recently marshalled a school equalization campaign, designed by Thurgood Marshall, to unearth and challenge disparities between Black and white schools in Virginia. And, along with partner Martin A. Martin, the pair had filed or overseen the filing of more legal challenges to unequal schooling than any law firm in the South. The students considered the lawyers’ expertise to be essential to their cause.

Discrepancies Between White and Black High Schools in Farmville

  • Exterior of the All-White Farmville High School

    A circa 1951 photograph shows the substantial multistory brick exterior of the all-white Farmville High School. This was one of several photographs entered by the plaintiffs in the landmark civil rights case Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County to demonstrate how much better the facilities were at the all-white school compared to conditions at the all-Black Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville.

  • Exterior of the All-Black Robert Russa Moton High School

    This circa 1951 photograph shows the exterior of the all-Black Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville. The original structure, built in 1939, was designed to hold 180 students, but by the late 1940s the school had about two-and-a-half times that number of students. To accommodate the overflow, the county school district built temporary structures like the flimsy tar-paper-covered building at right. This was one of several photographs entered by the plaintiffs in the landmark civil rights case Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County to demonstrate the unequal facilities between the all-white Farmville High School and the all-Black Moton School.

  • Farmville High School Auditorium

    This circa 1951 photograph shows the two-tiered auditorium with fixed seats at the all-white Farmville High School. This photograph was among the images entered by the plaintiffs in the landmark civil rights case Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County to demonstrate visually how unequal the facilities were when comparing the all-white public high school to the all-Black Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville.

  • Auditorium/Athletic Facility at the Robert Russa Moton High School

    An unidentified group gathers on folding chairs in the room that served jointly as an auditorium and as a makeshift athletic facility (note the basketball hoop on the far wall) in the all-Black Robert Russa Moton High School. This was one of several photographs entered by the plaintiffs in the landmark civil rights case Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County to demonstrate the inferior facilities at the all-Black public school when compared to the all-white Farmville High School.

  • Farmville High School Gymnasium

    Students practice basketball in the gymnasium at Farmville High School, an all-white public school. This circa 1951 photograph was one of several used in the landmark civil rights case Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County to show the superior facilities provided for white public school students compared to those offered Black students at the segregated Robert Russa Moton High School. The Moton school did not have a dedicated gymnnasium.

Robinson and Hill’s initial response to the request was less than enthusiastic. The national NAACP had agreed the previous year to file no more lawsuits aimed at equalizing Black and white schools. Instead, the strategy was to eliminate de jure segregation. A South Carolina case aimed at school desegregation, Briggs v. Elliott, was scheduled to move forward the following month. Rural Prince Edward County did not strike the attorneys as fertile ground for a similar court challenge. Even so, Robinson and Hill were scheduled to pass through Farmville a few days later. They agreed to meet with the students. The lawyers came away from that encounter impressed by the enthusiasm and determination of Johns and her fellow students. If the parents would commit to challenging school segregation, not just unequal facilities, they would take the case, Hill and Robinson said. Two major meetings over the next several days cemented the commitment. In the first, W. Lester Banks, executive secretary of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP, pressed parents to commit to a desegregation lawsuit. Those present overwhelmingly agreed. “It felt like reaching for the moon,” Johns told author Richard Kluger many years later. As the strike continued, a second gathering occurred on the night of May 3 at Farmville’s Black First Baptist Church. Speaking to an overflow crowd, Robinson and Hill pressed the case for integrated schools. Perhaps the pivotal moment came when Johns stood to address the crowd. Speaking firmly and without notes, she addressed the reluctance of some community elders. According to a May 12 report in the Richmond Afro-American newspaper, she urged: “Don’t let Mr. Charlie, Mr. Tommy or Mr. Pervall stop you from backing us. We are depending on you.… Back the pupils up in getting a non-segregated school.” The crowd thundered its approval, the newspaper reported. While many of her fellow students had once regarded Johns as quiet, this moment revealed what her family had long known: her calm demeanor masked a steely resolve.

With the assurance of legal backing for a new school, Johns and the other students agreed to end the strike. On May 23, Robinson filed Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County in the federal district court in Richmond, setting in motion the legal challenge that would become part of Brown v. Board.

Post-Strike Developments and Later Life

Barbara Johns in high school graduation cap and gown

Worried that their daughter’s safety was in jeopardy, Johns’s parents elected to send her to Montgomery, Alabama, for her senior year of high school. “It was a hard decision and very upsetting to us,” recalled Joan Johns Cobbs in an interview with author Margaret Edds. The concern was well-founded. Various parents suffered retaliatory action, including loss of jobs or store credit, for challenging Prince Edward’s segregated schools. Several years later, soon after the Brown v. Board decision, the Johnses’ house burned to the ground on an evening when the family was in Washington, D.C. Although arson was never proved, the family suspected it.

Family Photos of Barbara Rose Johns Powell

  • Undated Photograph of a Young Barbara Johns

    Though this portrait of a young Barbara Johns is undated, it was probably made in her late teens or early twenties. In 1955, just shy of her twentieth birthday, the former student activist married William Rowland Powell and was thereafter known as Barbara Johns Powell.

  • Rowland Powell and Barbara Johns Powell

    A family photograph taken circa 1965 shows Barbara Johns Powell and her husband, Rowland Powell. The couple married in 1955 and had five children.

  • Barbara Johns Powell and Family

    Barbara Johns Powell and her husband, Rowland Powell, pose with their four daughters in 1978. From left to right are Kelly, Tracy, Dawn, and Terry. Their son, William Jr., is missing from the photograph.

  • Barbara Johns Powell

    Barbara Johns Powell smiles broadly in this vibrant color photograph probably taken in the 1980s. As a sixteen-year-old in 1951, Barbara Johns led a student walkout at the all-Black Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville. That action helped trigger a legal case that, combined with four other cases, led to the historic Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned the segregation of public schools. This is one of a handful of photographs of her owned by the Johns Family.

In Montgomery, Johns lived with her paternal uncle, Vernon Johns—a renowned and iconoclastic pastor who preceded Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church—and Altona Trent Johns, his accomplished musician wife. Barbara Johns attended and graduated from the Alabama State College Laboratory High School, an experimental high school within Alabama State’s teacher preparation program. After graduating, she enrolled in Spelman College in Atlanta, then one of the nation’s premier educational institutions for Black women. Back home in Prince Edward County the summer before starting college, she met William Holland Rowland Powell, called Rowland, the son of a Philadelphia minister who conducted a religious retreat in Virginia every summer. Powell was thirteen years Johns’s senior, but they fell in love. Despite her parents’ concern over the age gap, the couple married on January 1, 1955, two months shy of her twentieth birthday. Later, Powell followed his father into the ministry. He pastored a Baptist church in Williamstown, New Jersey, while the couple lived in Philadelphia. Barbara Johns Powell gave birth to five children. She worked as a school librarian within the Philadelphia school system for two decades. In 1979 she earned a bachelor’s degree from Drexel University. Later in her life, according to her family, Powell rarely spoke about her historic action. Her children were not aware of their mother’s role until a filmmaker contacted her for an interview about the strike, Cobbs said. Powell died of bone cancer in Philadelphia on September 25, 1991. She was predeceased by two of her children.

Legacy

Responding to the walkout, Prince Edward County officials opened a much-improved high school for Black students in 1953. It was more than a decade after that, however, before the county’s public schools began operating on an integrated basis. Confronted in the wake of the Brown decision with a court order to desegregate, white officials elected to shut down the public schools in 1959—a policy called Massive Resistance. The schools did not reopen until 1964, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward. The courageous action of Barbara Johns Powell and her fellow students are the subject of the Civil Rights Memorial unveiled on the grounds of the Virginia State Capitol in 2008. In 2017, then-Governor Terry McAuliffe named a renovated state building housing the Office of the Attorney General of Virginia in honor of Barbara Johns. On April 23, 2018, the sixty-seventh anniversary of the launching of the Moton School strike, Virginia celebrated the first annual Barbara Rose Johns Day. And in 2020, the state Commission for Historical Statues in the United States Capitol selected Johns to represent Virginia with a statue in the National Statuary Hall Collection, replacing a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. In a press release announcing the removal of the Lee statue, Governor Ralph Northam said, “We should all be proud of this important step forward for our Commonwealth and our country. The Confederacy is a symbol of Virginia’s racist and divisive history, and it is past time we tell our story with images of perseverance, diversity, and inclusion. I look forward to seeing a trailblazing young woman of color represent Virginia in the U.S. Capitol, where visitors will learn about Barbara Johns’s contributions to America and be empowered to create positive change in their communities just like she did.”

MAP
TIMELINE
March 6, 1935

Barbara Rose Johns is born in New York, New York, to Violet Adele Spencer Johns and Robert Melvin Johns.

Spring 1936

Barbara Johns moves with her parents to Prince Edward County.

1942

Barbara Johns moves with her family to Washington, D.C. After her father is drafted into the U.S. Army, she and her siblings return to Prince Edward County to live with their grandmother, Mary Spencer Croner. Later they will live with their paternal grandmother, Sallie Price Johns.

April 23, 1951
Under the leadership of Barbara Johns, fellow students at the all-Black Robert Russa Moton High School in the town of Farmville in Prince Edward County walk out of their school to protest the unequal conditions of their education as compared to those of the white students in nearby Farmville High School.
April 25, 1951
Oliver W. Hill and Spottswood William Robinson III, lawyers for the NAACP, arrive in Prince Edward County to help the students of Robert Russa Moton High School, who have gone on strike.
April 26, 1951

Virginia NAACP executive secretary W. Lester Banks meets with students of the all-Black Robert Russa Moton High School and their parents, telling them that the NAACP is willing to take on their case in an attempt to end segregation. Three days earlier, the students had walked out of school in protest of unequal conditions.

May 3, 1951

The law firm of Oliver W. Hill files a petition with the Prince Edward County School Board, seeking an end to segregated schools in Farmville and Prince Edward County. That night, in a community gathering of hundreds at Farmville's Black First Baptist Church, Barbara Johns pleads with parents and community leaders to support the students.

May 7, 1951

After leaving school two weeks earlier in protest of unequal conditions and assured of legal support for their cause, students at the all-Black Robert Russa Moton High School return to class.

May 23, 1951

Spottswood William Robinson III files the suit Davis, et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia in federal court, challenging the constitutionality of segregated education in Prince Edward County schools on behalf of Black students and their parents.

Autumn 1951

Barbara Johns moves to Montgomery, Alabama, to attend her final year of high school. She lives with her uncle, the Reverend Vernon Johns, and his wife, Altona Trent Johns.

1952

Barbara Johns graduates from Alabama State College Laboratory High School in Montgomery, Alabama, and enrolls in Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia.

March 7, 1952
The U.S. District Court rules against the students of Robert Russa Moton High School in Prince Edward County, upholding the constitutionality of segregated public schools, but orders that the Black schools be made physically equal to the white schools.
December 9–11, 1952
U.S. Supreme Court hearings begin in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which is actually five cases from across the country bundled together, including the Virginia case of Davis, et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County. Spottswood William Robinson III presents the Virginia portion of the case.
May 17, 1954

The U.S. Supreme Court rules in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that segregation in schools is unconstitutional, but fails to explain how quickly and in what manner desegregation is to be achieved. The decision leads to the Massive Resistance movement in Virginia.

January 1, 1955

Barbara Johns marries William Holland Rowland Powell. They will have five children.

1979

Barbara Johns Powell completes her bachelor's degree at Drexel University.

September 25, 1991

Barbara Johns Powell dies of bone cancer in Philadelphia.

July 21, 2008
The Virginia Civil Rights Memorial is dedicated in Capitol Square in Richmond. One side of the four-sided monument recognizes Barbara Johns and her fellow students, their parents, and community leaders.
February 23, 2017

Governor Terry McAuliffe renames the renovated Ninth Street Office Building in Richmond the Barbara Johns Building. The building houses the Office of the Attorney General of Virginia.

December 10, 2017

The public library in Farmville is renamed the Barbara Rose Johns Farmville–Prince Edward Community Library.

April 23, 2018

Virginia celebrates the first annual Barbara Rose Johns Day.

December 16, 2020

The Virginia Commission for Historical Statues in the United States Capitol selects Barbara Johns to represent Virginia with a statue in the National Statuary Hall Collection, replacing a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

FURTHER READING
  • Bonastia, Christopher. Southern Stalemate: Five Years Without Public Education in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.
  • Daugherity, Brian J. and Grogan, Brian, eds. A Little Child Shall Lead Them: A Documentary Account of the Struggle for School Desegregation in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019.
  • Edds, Margaret. We Face the Dawn: Oliver Hill, Spottswood Robinson, and the Legal Team That Dismantled Jim Crow. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2018.
  • Kanefield, Teri. The Girl from the Tar Paper School: Barbara Rose Johns and the Advent of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2014.
  • Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice. New York: Vintage Books, 1975.
  • Smith, Bob. They Closed Their Schools: Prince Edward County, Virginia, 1951–1964. 1965. Reprint, Farmville: Martha E. Forrester Council of Women, 1996.  
  • Stokes, John A. Students on Strike: Jim Crow, Civil Rights, Brown, and Me. Washington: National Geographic, 2008.
  • Titus, Jill Ogline. Brown’s Battleground; Students, Segregationists, and the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
  • Woodley, Ken. The Road to Healing: A Civil Rights Reparations Story in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Montgomery, Alabama: NewSouth Books, 2019.
CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Edds, Margaret. Powell, Barbara Rose Johns. (2021, July 22). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/barbara-rose-johns-powell.
MLA Citation:
Edds, Margaret. "Powell, Barbara Rose Johns" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (22 Jul. 2021). Web. 16 Sep. 2021
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