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, Violet and Robert Johns reunited with their children 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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 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 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.
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. 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 . 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.”