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.

READING LEVEL

Barbara Rose Johns Powell organized a student walkout in 1951 at Robert Russa Moton High School, an all-Black school. The protest led to the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. That decision made segregation in public schools illegal. Her brave actions led to her being selected to represent Virginia in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol. Johns was only 16 years old when she planned the two-week strike on April 23, 1951. At first, the students wanted a new Black high school that was equal to the all-white school in Prince Edward County. However, the students and their parents agreed to push for a desegregated high school.

A total of 74 Prince Edward County parents agreed to participate in the case. The next autumn, Johns’s parents sent her to Montgomery, Alabama, for her senior year of high school.

Johns graduated from high school 1952. She then went to Spelman College in Atlanta. At 19 years old, she left college to marry William Holland Rowland Powell. After her brave protest, Johns lived a mostly quiet life. She had 5 children, worked as a librarian in Philadelphia schools, and completed a college degree at Drexel University in 1979. She died of bone cancer in Philadelphia on September 25, 1991. She was 56 years old.

Early Years

Barbara Rose Johns was born on March 6, 1935, in New York City. She was the first of 5 children. Her parents moved from Prince Edward County to Harlem to find work. They did not make much money while living and working in Harlem. So, they moved back to Prince Edward County when Barbara was 1 year old. There, they ran a small country store owned by her uncle. As the Johns family grew, so did their need for money. In 1942, they traveled north to Washington, D.C. Her mother worked for the government and her father joined the Army.

Her mother, Violet, worried about raising the children alone. She sent Barbara and her back to Prince Edward County. Barbara’s grandmother took care of the children and Violet returned to Washington to work in an office at the Navy Department.

In her journal, Barbara Johns warmly remembered the years she spent on her grandmother’s farm. Barbara’s grandmother and her grandmother’s husband raised pigs, cows, tobacco, corn, and other crops. “My days at my grandmother’s house were fun filled and chore filled,” Johns wrote. Feeding chickens, gathering wood for the stove, and other chores filled her days on the farm.

Barbara’s father, Robert Johns, chose to move his children to the home of his mother in Prince Edward County. At her new home, Barbara wrote about how her days became less chore-filled, and more filled with reading and writing. She spoke about the energetic debates between her grandparents. At times, “to avoid all the ruckus,” Johns said she would spend time in nature and look for a quiet place to read and think.

When the war ended, the family reunited in Prince Edward County. Robert Johns bought 127-acres of land from his brother and planned to build the family a home. Violet Johns returned to work in Washington for periods of time. Barbara would help to take care of her siblings. Meanwhile, she would spend time with her Uncle Vernon’s large library. In an interview, Violet Johns said, “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.” Eventually, the newly built farmhouse became the family home.

Student Strike

Barbara Johns started at Moton School in eighth grade. She joined many activities at Moton, like chorus and the student council. These activities gave Barbara the chance to travel across Virginia. As she traveled, she visited many Black school buildings. She saw how much nicer these schools were than Moton High School. Barbara started to see the differences in Black and white education. The Moton School had been overcrowded since it opened. The building could only hold 180 students. It was bursting with two to three times that number of students. Classes were held in the auditorium, school buses, and wooden outbuildings. Wrapped in smelly tar paper, the outbuildings looked like chicken coops. Students found it hard to stay warm on icy cold days and dry on rainy days. The school had no cafeteria, no science lab, and no gym. The local all-white high school had many advanced classes that Moton did not offer.

Bothered by these problems, Johns asked her favorite teacher, Ms. Davenport, for advice. Her teacher replied with a question: “Why don’t you do something about it?” At first, Ms. Davenport’s question made her feel like her concerns weren’t important. But she kept thinking about the challenge. Then, in the fall of 1950, something happened that made her decide to act. After missing the school bus, Johns stood by the side of the road for over an hour. She hoped that someone might offer her a ride into town. Eventually, a school bus carrying white children to Farmville High School drove by without stopping. “Right then and there, I decided … something had to be done about this inequality,” Johns wrote in her journal. The next day, she got to work. She asked several peers to meet with her. She explained her plans for a walkout the next spring. Over the next several months, the group of students began to grow.

The plan kicked off on the morning of April 23, 1951. A member of the group disguised his voice and called the principal’s office. He claimed that Moton students were causing trouble at the bus station downtown. Principal Jones left the school to investigate. A fake note was given to teachers telling them to bring their students to the auditorium for an assembly. Once the students sat down, the stage curtains opened, revealing the student leaders. Johns stepped up to the podium and directed the teachers to leave. Then she told the students that the time had come to stand up against the failings of their school building. She urged the students to join the group in walking out. Most of the students accepted the challenge and followed Johns outside. The following day, Johns and the student organizers met with Superintendent Thomas J. McIlwaine. He claimed that the county was moving as quickly as it could to improve things at Moton School. The superintendent ordered the students to return to their classes.

Legal Action

The students couldn’t just sit and wait for slow change. Barbara Johns and Carrie Stokes wrote a letter to a Richmond law firm. In it, they stated, “Gentlemen … we have to ask for your help. 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.” The two lawyers, Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson, had a lot of experience fighting racial inequality and school segregation. The students knew that the lawyers’ expertise was necessary to their cause.

Discrepancies Between White and Black High Schools in Farmville

At first, Robinson and Hill didn’t seem to want to take on the case. They didn’t just want to make all-Black schools equal to all-white schools. They wanted to end school segregation. But Robinson and Hill agreed to meet with the students. They agreed to take on the case if the parents would commit to fighting school segregation—not just unfair facilities. One night at a meeting at Farmville’s Black First Baptist Church, Barbara spoke to the crowd. She said, “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.”

Once they felt that they would be supported in getting a new school, Johns and the other students agree to end the strike. On May 23, Robinson filed Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County in Richmond. This led to the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

Post-Strike Developments and Later Life

To protect her from harm, Johns’s parents decided to send her to Montgomery, Alabama, for her last year of high school. Many parents were bullied and treated badly for standing up against segregated schools. Some lost their jobs or were denied store credit. Years later after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Johnses’ house burned down when the family was away. Even though they couldn’t prove it, the family believed that this was done on purpose.

In Montgomery, Johns lived with her uncle Vernon and his wife, Altona. Barbara Johns graduated from high school while living in Alabama. After graduating, she went to Spelman College in Atlanta, one of the country’s best schools for Black women. The summer before starting college, she met William Holland Rowland Powell. They fell in love and were married on January 1, 1955—two months before her 20th birthday. Powell became a pastor of a church in New Jersey. The couple lived in Philadelphia, where Barbara had 5 children. She worked as a school librarian in Philadelphia for 20 years. In 1979, she earned a degree from Drexel University. Barbara rarely talked about her historic actions. Her children didn’t even know about what she did until a filmmaker contacted her for an interview. Barbara Johns Powell died of bone cancer in Philadelphia on September 25, 1991.

Legacy

Because of the walkout, Prince Edward County opened an improved high school for Black students in 1953. However, over 10 years passed before the public schools began to integrate. After Brown v. Board of Education, the schools were forced to desegregate. But white officials decided to shut down all public schools in 1959 instead of desegregating. This action was known as “Massive Resistance.” The schools did not reopen until 1964. In 2008, a Civil Rights Memorial was built in honor of Barbara Johns and her partners. In 2017, Governor Terry McAuliffe named an important government building after Barbara Johns. On April 23, 2018, the 67th anniversary of the Moton School strike, Virginia celebrated the first annual Barbara Rose Johns Day. In 2020, the state chose her to represent Virginia with a statue in the National Statuary Hall Collection. This would replace the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. 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.”

Barbara Rose Johns Powell organized a student walkout in 1951 at Robert Russa Moton High School, an all-Black school. This protest was one of five legal cases that led to the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. That decision made segregation in public schools illegal. Her courageous actions led to her being selected as one of two Virginians represented in the National Statuary Hall Collection at the U.S. Capitol. When she was only 16 years old, Johns planned for months with a group of students before beginning the two-week strike on April 23, 1951. At first, the students wanted a new Black high school that was equal in quality to the all-white school in Prince Edward County. However, the students and their parents agreed to push for a desegregated high school after speaking with Oliver W. Hill and Spottswood William Robinson III, attorneys for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Robinson filed the lawsuit (Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County) in federal district court in Richmond on May 23, 1951.

A total of 74 Prince Edward County parents, representing 118 Moton students, agreed to serve as plaintiffs in the case. The next autumn, Johns’s parents sent her to Montgomery, Alabama, for her senior year of high school for fear of her safety.

Johns graduated from Alabama State College Laboratory High School in 1952. She then attended Spelman College in Atlanta. At 19 years old, she paused her studies to marry William Holland Rowland Powell, who later became a Baptist minister near Philadelphia. After her teenage stance against injustice, Johns lived a mostly quiet life. She gave birth to five children, worked as a librarian in Philadelphia schools for 20 years, and eventually completed a college degree at Drexel University in 1979. She died of bone cancer in Philadelphia on September 25, 1991. She was 56 years old.

Early Years

Barbara Rose Johns was born on March 6, 1935, in New York City. She was the first child born to Violet Adele Spencer Johns and Robert Melvin Johns, who had 4 children after her. Her parents moved from Prince Edward County to Harlem to find work during the Great Depression. Violet and Robert Johns did not make much money while living and working in Harlem, so they returned to Prince Edward County when Barbara was 14 months old. There, they managed a small country store owned by Vernon Johns, Robert Johns’s older brother. As the Johns family continued to grow, so did their financial challenges. In 1942, they traveled north to Washington, D.C., where Violet found government work and Robert was drafted into the U.S. Army.

Concerned about raising her children alone, Violet sent 7-year-old Barbara and her two younger siblings back to Prince Edward County. In her 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’s mother, Mary Spencer Croner, took care of the children and Violet returned to Washington to do clerical work at the Navy Department.

In her journal, Barbara Johns fondly remembered the years she spent on her grandmother’s farm. The farm was a 175-acre plot of land where Barbara’s grandmother and her grandmother’s 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 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 chose to move his children to the home of his mother, Sallie Price Johns, in Prince Edward County. There, Barbara Johns came into closer contact with her uncle Vernon, who was well-educated and curious. The family thought Barbara mirrored Sallie Johns’s strong will and independence. At her new home, Barbara 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, spending time in nature and looking for a quiet place to read and think.

When the war ended, the family reunited in Prince Edward County. Once again, Robert Johns managed his brother Vernon’s store. Robert bought a 127-acre plot of land from his brother, on which he planned to build the family a home. To meet the financial needs of the family, Violet Johns periodically returned to work in Washington. Barbara would oversee helping to take care of her siblings. “I had a great deal of responsibility thrust upon my shoulders both outside in the fields and inside the house,” Johns wrote in her journal. Meanwhile, she would spend time with her Uncle Vernon’s large library, reading works by Booker T. Washington, Richard Wright, H.G. Wells, and many more. In an interview, Violet Johns noted 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.” Eventually, the newly built farmhouse became the family home shared by Violet and Robert Johns, their children, and Barbara’s grandmother, Sallie Johns.

Student Strike

Barbara Johns entered Moton School in eighth grade and her perspective immediately began to expand. Before Moton, she and her siblings had attended a one-room elementary school that also served as a Sunday School. She participated in many different activities at Moton, including the New Homemakers of America, the high school chorus, and the student council. These activities also provided Johns with opportunities to travel across Virginia. As she traveled, she visited many Black school buildings and observed how much higher in quality these schools were compared to Moton High School. She compared Moton to schools such as Huntington High School in Newport News and became more and more aware of the obvious racial imbalances in Black and white education. The Moton School had been overcrowded almost since the day it opened in 1939. When Johns entered Moton School in the late 1940s, the building that was meant to hold 180 students was bursting with two to three times that number of students. Classes were being held anywhere there was space—the auditorium, school buses, and three temporary wood-framed outbuildings. Wrapped in smelly tar paper, those outbuildings looked unsettlingly similar to chicken coops. Students found it difficult to stay warm on icy cold days and dry on rainy days. The school had no cafeteria, no science lab, no gym, and no industrial or woodworking shops. Statements from the legal case years later would confirm that the academics at Moton School were also lacking. Many classes, such as trigonometry, physics, world history, geography, Latin, and industrial arts, were available at the local all-white high school but not at Moton School.

Moved by these problems, Johns asked her favorite teacher, Inez Davenport, for advice. Earlier, Davenport had told a class about a student strike in Massachusetts in support of higher teacher salaries. When Johns fumed about conditions at Moton, Davenport replied with a question: “Why don’t you do something about it?” In her journal, Johns said that Ms. Davenport’s question at first made her feel dismissed. But, 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 fall of 1950, an incident took place that made her commit to action. After missing the school bus, Johns stood by the side of the road for over an hour, hoping that someone driving by might offer her a ride 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, she started forming a plan and the next day, she got to work. She asked a handful of trusted peers to meet with her privately. There she planted the seeds for a walkout the next spring. Over the next several months, the group of students began to grow.

The plan kicked off on the morning of April 23, 1951. John Watson, a member of the student group, disguised his voice and called the principal’s office to claim that Moton students were causing trouble at the bus station downtown. Principal M. Boyd Jones left the school to investigate. A forged note was given to teachers telling them to bring their students to the auditorium for an assembly. Once the students sat down, someone opened the curtains on the stage, revealing the student leaders, including Barbara Johns. She stepped up to the podium and directed the teachers to leave. Then she told her fellow students that the time had come to take a stand against the failings of their school building. She urged the students to join the group in walking out of the building and refusing to return until officials committed to fixing the problems. Most of the students accepted the challenge and followed Johns outside. The following day, Johns and the organizers of the walk-out met with Superintendent Thomas J. McIlwaine. He insisted that the county was moving as quickly as it could to improve the conditions at Moton School. The superintendent demanded that the students return to their classes.

Legal Action

The students, however, were too motivated to sit and wait for slow change. Barbara Johns and Carrie Stokes wrote a letter to a Richmond law firm. In it, they stated, “Gentlemen: We hate to impose as we are doing, but under the circumstances that we are facing, we have to ask for your help. 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 been the head of the legal team of the NAACP Virginia conference since the early 1940s. Spottswood Robinson had recently led a school equalization campaign. This campaign was designed by Thurgood Marshall to study and challenge the unequal conditions between Black and white schools in Virginia. The legal team had filed or supervised the filing of more legal challenges to unequal schooling than any other law firm in the South. The students knew that the lawyers’ expertise was necessary to their cause.

Discrepancies Between White and Black High Schools in Farmville

At first, Robinson and Hill didn’t seem eager to take on the case. In 1950, the NAACP had agreed to not file any more lawsuits over education inequality. Rather than focusing on cases about equalizing segregated schools, they wanted to take on legal school segregation. But Robinson and Hill agreed to meet with the students. Impressed by the passion of the students, Robinson and Hill agreed to take on the case if the parents would commit to challenging school segregation—not just unequal facilities. The strike continued and one night at a community gathering at Farmville’s Black First Baptist Church, Barbara addressed the crowd. She stated, “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.”

Once they felt confident that they would be supported in getting a new school, Johns and the other students agree 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. This created a legal domino effect that led to the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

Post-Strike Developments and Later Life

Worried about Barbara’s safety, Johns’s parents decided to send her to Montgomery, Alabama, for her senior year of high school. Many parents were targeted for challenging Prince Edward County’s segregated schools. Some lost their jobs or were denied store credit for supporting this legal challenge. Years later after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Johnses’ house burned to the ground when the family was away in Washington, D.C. Even though they couldn’t officially prove it, the family suspected that this was done intentionally.

In Montgomery, Johns lived with her uncle, Vernon Johns and his wife, Altona Trent Johns. Barbara Johns attended and graduated from the Alabama State College Laboratory High School. After graduating, she went to Spelman College in Atlanta, one of the country’s leading schools for Black women. The summer before starting college, she met William Holland Rowland Powell. Powell was 13 years older than Johns, but they fell in love and were married on January 1, 1955—two months before her 20th birthday. Powell would follow in his father’s footsteps, becoming a pastor of a Baptist church in Williamstown, New Jersey. The couple lived in Philadelphia, where Barbara would give birth to 5 children. She worked as a school librarian in Philadelphia for 20 years. In 1979, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Drexel University. According to her family, Barbara rarely talked about her historic actions. Her children didn’t even know about what she did until a filmmaker contacted her for an interview. Barbara Johns Powell died of bone cancer in Philadelphia on September 25, 1991.

Legacy

Because of the walkout, Prince Edward County opened an improved high school for Black students in 1953. It was more than 10 years later, however, before the public schools began to integrate. After Brown v. Board of Education, a court order forced the schools to desegregate. But white officials decided to shut down all public schools in 1959 in an act of protest known as Massive Resistance. The schools did not reopen until 1964 after another Supreme Court decision, Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward. In 2008, a Civil Rights Memorial was unveiled, which depicts the brave actions of Barbara Johns Powell and her fellow students. In 2017, Governor Terry McAuliffe named a building in honor of Barbara Johns; this building holds the Office of the Attorney General of Virginia. On April 23, 2018, the 67th anniversary of the Moton School strike, Virginia celebrated the first annual Barbara Rose Johns Day. In 2020, the state chose her to represent Virginia with a statue in the National Statuary Hall Collection. This would replace the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. 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.”

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, November 17). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/barbara-rose-johns-powell.
MLA Citation:
Edds, Margaret. "Powell, Barbara Rose Johns" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (17 Nov. 2021). Web. 06 Dec. 2021
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