Barbara Johns & the Moton High School Strike

Barbara Johns & the Moton High School Strike Research Topic

Barbara Johns & the Moton High School Strike Research Topic via ProQuest’s eLibrary

We have all heard about legendary civil rights heroes such as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Little Rock Nine, but few today remember Barbara Rose Johns and the role she played in school desegregation. Sixty-five years ago this April, she led a strike in Farmville, Virginia, that had repercussions in school districts across the United States. A little background: Barbara was born in New York City in 1935, but her family moved to Prince Edward County, Virginia, where her father ran a small farm. Her uncle was Vernon Johns, a prominent civil rights activist. In 1951 in Farmville, there were two high schools. Farmville High School was for the white students, and it had plenty of classroom space, a gymnasium, a modern auditorium, locker rooms and a cafeteria, among other niceties. Moton High School – specifically, Robert Russa Moton High School (named after the influential black educator who took over for Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute) – was not so nice.

Robert Russa Moton High School

Robert Russa Moton High School via National Archives [Public Domain]

Moton was in a state of disrepair. The toilets were old and cracked; the roof leaked so bad that some students kept umbrellas with them to keep the dripping water from getting on their papers; wood-burning stoves did not provide adequate heat in the winter months; text books and supplies were secondhand and scarce, but worst of all – the school was dreadfully overcrowded. More than 450 students were crammed into a space meant for 180. Some classes were held in makeshift classrooms, shacks made of wood frames and tar-coated paper walls that the students called “chicken coops,” while other students attended classes in buses in the parking lot. Like most students, Johns, a 16-year-old junior at the time, was extremely frustrated at the conditions at the school. She expressed her concerns to her teacher, Inez Davenport. Barbara said she wished something could be done about it. Davenport then said, “Why don’t you do something about it?” Barbara did not forget that question and later conceived the idea of a school strike. The strike was held on April 23, 1951. The next day, a student strike committee met with the school superintendent who listened to their concerns, but then threatened to expel them and fire the teachers if they did not return to classes. He did, however, promise them a new school but did not say when they would get it. This was all the students were hoping for. According to Johns, it never occurred to them that the strike would lead to a desegregation lawsuit. They just wanted improvements to the school, or, at most, a new school. Students contacted the NAACP in Richmond for help. Lawyers Oliver W. Hill and Spottswood Robinson were concerned about how serious the striking students were, but after meeting with them, they decided to take the case, but it would not be just about school improvements…it would be about desegregation.

Brown v Board of Education Research Topic

Brown v Board of Education Research Topic via ProQuest’s eLibrary

The case was called Dorothy E. Davis v County School Board of Prince Edward County. This lawsuit was rolled up into the larger Brown v. Board of Education case, which was decided in 1954. The Earl Warren Supreme Court overturned Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and held that segregation was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. This paved the way for the integration of schools across America. As for Barbara Johns, she finished high school in Montgomery, Alabama. She then attended college in Atlanta and then at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She married a minister, raised five children and was a librarian in the Philadelphia Public School system until her death in 1991.

Learn more about Barbara Rose Johns, desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement in eLibrary.


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Teaching ToolThe Girl from the Tar Paper School,” by Teri Kanefield, tells the story of Barbara Rose Johns and the Farmville, VA Strike.


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