Barbara Johns and the Student Strike
Sixteen-year-old Barbara Rose Johns—niece of Vernon Johns, the firebrand preacher who preceded Martin Luther King Jr. as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama—organized the walkout. She was motivated less by her uncle’s personality than by conditions at Moton High School, named for the Virginia-born educatorand the first high school for black students in Prince Edward County. Built in 1939 to accommodate 180 students, the school had no gymnasium, no cafeteria, no science laboratories, and no athletic field. A decade later, the county constructed several freestanding buildings, made of plywood and tar paper, to accommodate a student population of more than 400. The buildings had no plumbing and were heated by wooden stoves. As Johns wrote years later, “I was unhappy with the school facility and its inadequacies … it wasn’t fair that we had such a poor facility, equipment, etc., when our white counterparts enjoyed science laboratories, a huge facility, separate gym dept. etc.”
Johns and several other students decided to walk out of the school and to return only if and when the school board promised a new building. New facilities, not the desegregation of those facilities, were the group’s initial objective. Shortly after eleven o’clock on the morning of April 23, 1951, the students called an assembly without the knowledge of the school’s principal. Johns detailed the group’s grievances, and its plan was greeted with overwhelming student support. For the remainder of the day, students picketed the school, both inside and outside, with placards proclaiming, “We want a new school or none at all” and “Down with tar-paper shacks.” The following day, student leaders walked to the Farmville courthouse, where they met with school superintendent T. J. McIlwaine, who told them nothing could be done until they returned to classes. The students refused to do so until May 7, and in the interim, the ensuing events moved beyond their original intentions.
Attacking “Separate But Equal”
After receiving a call from the striking students, two lawyers for the Virginia chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people (NAACP),and , arrived in Prince Edward County on April 25, 1951. The national NAACP had recently shifted its strategy of challenging unequal facilities to a broader attack on the concept of “separate but equal.” The doctrine was originally set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), a case that established the constitutionality of separate facilities for blacks and whites so long as they were equal. The NAACP now argued that segregation itself was unequal and had to be dismantled if black citizens were to obtain an equally good education. At a mass meeting in the school auditorium on April 26, 1951, Virginia NAACP Executive Secretary Lester Banks informed parents and students of the organization’s willingness to take on a legal case to end segregation. There was little objection.
L. Francis Griffin, minister of the black First Baptist Church in Farmville, called another meeting for May 3, 1951, at his church. In a mailing, he told potential attendees: “REMEMBER. The eyes of the world are on us. The intelligent support we give our cause will serve as a stimulant for the cause of free people everywhere.” At the meeting, however, former Moton principal J. B. Pervall spoke persuasively about the justice of equality and the simultaneous necessity of segregation. For her part, Johns reminded the audience of the tar paper shacks and, in the words of scholars Gill Robinson Hickman and Richard A. Couto, “challeng[ed] Pervall with unmistakable metaphors of white oppression and black accommodation to it”: “Don’t let Mr. Charlie, Mr. Tommy, or Mr. Pervall stop you from backing us.”
On May 23, Hill and Robinson filed suit to end segregation in the county schools. The case, Davis, et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County was bundled with cases from South Carolina, Delaware, Kansas, and the District of Columbia into Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled on the case, presenting the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous decision to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson: “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
The payoff for the black students of Farmville was complicated by numerous factors, however, and gains were not immediate. By 1953, the black students of Moton High School were able to move into a new school—a well-equipped structure equal in facilities to the white high school. But while the student strike helped achieve a lasting effect on equality of education in America, Prince Edward County took extreme measures in 1959 to protest desegregation, measures that prevented black students from receiving access to formal education for five years.
Massive Resistance and the Closing of the Schools
Under the leadership of U.S. Senator, Virginia chose to obstruct the Brown v. Board of Education decision by enacting a policy of Massive Resistance. Governor closed public schools in Warren County, Charlottesville, and Norfolk in the autumn of 1958 rather than integrate them, but two court decisions on January 19, 1959—one from a federal court, the other from the state supreme court—both overturned the Massive Resistance laws and demanded that the schools be reopened.
Prince Edward County officials continued to defy the court orders, however. On May 9, 1955, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals set September 1 as a deadline for integration. On June 26, the county board of supervisors voted instead to cut off revenues to the public schools. Encouraged by segregationists from across the state and the South, Prince Edward was the only locality in the nation to take such a step. The schools did not open on September 10 as scheduled and remained closed for the next five years.
While white students quickly moved into Prince Edward Academy—a new private school supported by state-approved tuition grants and donations from ardent segregationists—black students were left without any educational facilities. Some local churches provided a rudimentary substitute for the local schools, and some black students attended classes in nearby counties or, with the aid of the Quaker-affiliated American Friends Service Committee, relocated. Most black students, however, and especially children who were too young to move away from home, were denied access to any formal education. Similarly, most black teachers lost their jobs, forcing many to leave the community.
Legal wrangling continued between lawyers for Prince Edward County and the NAACP from 1959 until 1964. But as the schools remained closed into the 1960s, they began to attract national attention. In December 1962 the U.S. Justice Department filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of the black students denied education in Prince Edward County. U.S. president John F. Kennedy specifically mentioned the Prince Edward County case in a civil rights address to the U.S. Congress in February 1963. And at a centennial celebration for the Emancipation Proclamation on March 18, 1963, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy noted that “the only places on earth not to provide free public education are Communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras—and Prince Edward County, Virginia.”
Nearly 2,000 black students of Prince Edward County, mostly unschooled for four years, were invited to return to formal classes on September 16, 1963, through the assistance of the new, privately organized Prince Edward Free School Association, which leased three of the closed public school facilities for one year with the support of the Kennedy administration and private funds. During the 1963–1964 school year, about 1,500 students (including four white children) attended the Free School.
Finally, on May 25, 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward that the county had violated the students’ right to an education and ordered that the schools be reopened. Justice Hugo Black delivered the majority opinion for the court: “The time for mere ‘deliberate speed’ has run out, and that phrase can no longer justify denying these Prince Edward County school children their constitutional rights to an education equal to that afforded by the public schools in the other parts of Virginia.” This landmark decision made formal education accessible again, though it could do little to recoup the loss of years of educational opportunities for so many. On September 8, 1964, about 1,500 students, all but eight of whom were black, returned to classes in the Prince Edward County public schools for the first time in five years. The faculty consisted of sixty-nine black teachers and nine white teachers.
Legacy of Prince Edward County School Closings
The students in Prince Edward County public schools remained mostly African American for the rest of the 1960s. In 1971, white enrollment made up about 5 percent of the school. In 1972, James Anderson became school superintendent, and for more than twenty years his policies emphasized integration. By early in the twenty-first century, the student population in Prince Edward County was about 60 percent black and 40 percent white.
Meanwhile, Robert Russa Moton High School opened as the Robert R. Moton Museum on April 23, 2001, the fiftieth anniversary of the school strike. The museum’s focus is civil rights and education. In June 2003, Prince Edward County held a symbolic graduation ceremony for the “lost generation”—those denied education between 1959 and 1964—at which time the state of Virginia apologized for the school closings and established a scholarship fund. Prince Edward County and the Moton School Strike are also featured on the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial in Richmond, dedicated on July 21, 2008. Also known as the Capitol Square Civil Rights Memorial, the marker recognizes and celebrates Barbara Johns, her fellow students, their parents, community leaders, and their civil rights attorneys.