Barbara Johns is one step closer to Washington, D.C. A sculptor has been selected for the statue destined for the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall portraying Barbara Rose Johns Powell as the teenage Barbara Johns, when she rallied the students at the all-Black Robert Russa Moton High School to walk out in protest of their substandard learning conditions. Many historians consider the strike that Johns led as the start of the school desegregation movement. It led to a court case that was later bundled with other, similar cases into Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court overturning school segregation.
The statue is based on one of only two known photographs of the teenage Johns—one of which you can see here on EV—and extensive consultation with the Johns family by the sculptor, Steven Weitzman of Maryland. Weitzman, who also created a well-regarded statue of Frederick Douglass that’s in Emancipation Hall in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, was selected for the commission by the Virginia Commission for Historical Statues in the United States Capitol from eleven submissions. The commission recommended in December 2020 that the statue of Robert E. Lee in Statuary Hall be replaced. The Lee statue was subsequently removed and retired to the Lost Cause exhibit at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.
The Historical Statues Commission was particularly keen that Johns be portrayed as a teenager to inspire other young adults. The small-scale draft of the statue produced by Weitzman features Johns at a lectern on the stage at Moton High School holding a book in her uplifted hand, presumably as she rallied students to strike in protest of conditions at the school, where students often struggled to keep warm and lacked up-to-date textbooks and facilities. “Barbara Rose Johns led an extraordinary act of nonviolent civil disobedience which helped to ignite the American Civil Rights Movement. As was the case for numerous Black youths of the Jim Crow era, this brave young woman has not been celebrated in the great halls of America until now,” said Weitzman.
The final design of the sculpture will be slightly modified in response to comments offered by the commission as well as members of the Johns family. It could be in place in the Capitol, where Johns will join George Washington as one of two representatives of Virginia, within a year or two, according to the commission.