Before Greta Thunberg, before Emma González, before Malala Yousafzai, there was Barbara Johns.
Johns kickstarted America’s student-led movement for civil rights in education in 1951, when she launched a walkout of her fellow students at the all-Black Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville. She was sixteen at the time. She planned the walkout to secure a safer, newer, more equitable facility for her classmates. But after seeking the advice of lawyers from the NAACP, including Oliver Hill and W. Spottswood Robinson, Johns and 450 of her fellow students decided instead to commit to something much bigger: a lawsuit demanding desegregation. “It felt like reaching for the moon,” Johns said many years later.
That lawsuit, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, became one of five legal cases that would be consolidated into the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. And while it might have seemed like a moonshot to Johns, the reality is that her vision, strategic thinking, oratory skills, and grace under pressure all contributed to the suit’s success. It was Johns who led the assembly that convinced the majority of Moton School students to strike; Johns, along with her friend Carrie Stokes, who reached out to Hill and Robinson, two experienced civil rights attorneys. It was Johns who, at a May 3 gathering at Farmville’s Black First Baptist Church, demanded community support in a speech that moved the crowd to thunderous applause: “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.”
After Davis was filed on May 23, 1951, Johns’s parents, fearing retaliatory action, sent her to Montgomery, Alabama, to complete her high school education. For plaintiffs of the Davis case and their families, life in Prince Edward County could be difficult—or downright dangerous. Some parents of Moton School students lost their jobs or their store credit. And not long after the Brown v. Board decision, the Johnses’ house burned to the ground. The family, who were in Washington, D.C. at the time, suspected arson, although it was never proved.
In Montgomery Johns lived with her uncle Vernon Johns, who preceded Martin Luther King Jr. as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and graduated from high school. In 1955 she married a minister’s son, William Rowland Powell. They moved to Philadelphia, where she raised five children and worked as a school librarian for two decades. According to her family, Barbara Johns Powell rarely spoke about her historic role in the civil rights movement.
Johns died in 1991, but she is still making history. In 2020, a state commission chose to honor Johns with a statue in the National Statuary Hall Collection at the U.S. Capitol. As one of two statues representing Virginia, the Johns statue will replace the removed statue of Confederate general and enslaver Robert E. Lee.
Read Encyclopedia Virginia‘s entry on Johns to learn even more about her. Written by journalist and civil rights scholar Margaret Edds, the entry is filled with quotations from Johns’s unpublished memoirs, interviews with family, and painstakingly researched details that reveal the ordinary and extraordinary moments in this remarkable woman’s life.