Monday, February 4, 2013

Black History: Before Rosa Sat Down, Barbara Walked Out

by Sunnyjane

Barbara Rose Johns
Portrait  by Louis Briel, who also painted the portrait of famed tennis star Arthur Ashe that now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D. C.

Most Americans know the story of Rosa Parks, a black seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama who in 1955 refused to move to the back of the bus so that a white man could have her seat.  Parks's peaceful act of civil disobedience became a watershed moment for the Civil Rights movement in this country.  A privilege usually granted only to presidents and high-ranking military personnel, she was the first woman, and only the second African American, to lie in state in the United States Capitol Rotunda upon her death.

Ms. Parks has come to be known as The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.  But was she really?  


It was the era of separate-but-equal in America, a law intended to remedy the Negroes' dissatisfaction with the unfair treatment to which they were subjected after the Civil War.   In the seventeen states -- all in the south -- where segregation was mandatory, separate-but-equal was meant to apply to public transportation (trains, at the time the law was enacted in 1896) and all public schools.  Separate-but-equal education was one of the most heinous of the Jim Crow Laws (which basically dehumanized Negroes) that applied throughout America's southern states.

While in Farmville, Virginia, the public schools were separate, there was little resemblance to equal.  

Whites-only high school, Farmville, Virginia, 1951

"Expansion" of R.R. Moton School for Negroes, Farmville, mid-1940
Typical classroom at R.R. Moton School, 1951
In a six-classroom facility built to teach 180 students, by the mid-1940s R. R. Moton could not accommodate the 450 students who attended. Community black leaders and parents pleaded with the School Board and County Supervisors to build a new Negro school.  In response, the Prince Edward County School Board decided to build what they quaintly referred to as an extensive expansion of R.R. Moton.  Their extensive expansion took the form of erecting plywood and tar-paper shacks, which were -- to put it mildly -- woefully inadequate.

Barbara Rose Johns, a quiet and studious sixteen-year-old,  decided  It was time that Negroes were treated equally with whites, time that they had a decent school...

Winning a Battle that Started a War 

Barbara Rose Johns (right) and one of her teachers, 1951

When her frustration with the inequality between the white and colored schools reached a certain threshold in late 1950, Barbara shared her concerns with a teacher.  The response she received from the teacher,  So do something about it, left Johns feeling even more frustrated and discouraged.   But after months of stewing over the whole thing, she had what she described in her biography as divine inspiration and decided on a plan of action: There wasn’t any fear.  I just thought — this is your moment.   Seize it!

And seize it, she did.  By secretly enlisting the help of Moton Student Council members, Johns developed her plan.  They pulled a ruse on the principal to get him off the school grounds, and called an assembly to urge their fellow students to go along with the plot.  And so it happened that on April 23, 1951, Barbara Rose Johns led her peers in a walk-out, a protest strike that would last for ten days.

Community Leaders' Reaction to the Strike


NAACP lawyers Spottswood Robinson, left, and Oliver Hill

That ten day-strike began with little response and no action regarding the students' requests for a new school.  It was not until they appealed to the PTA president that something happened: he called the NAACP in Richmond and requested that lawyers become involved in the issue.  Spottswood Robinson and Oliver Hill refused, claiming they were too busy.  It was not until, according to her sister, Barbara began calling Oliver Hill on a daily basis to beg for help from his organization that things began to change.  In an effort to stop the incessant calls, Hill agreed to go to Farmville and see what it was all about.  

Prince Edward had always prided itself as a We take care of our own county, and it did not take kindly  to outside agitators, especially of the NAACP sort.  The thin patina of civility between the races was beginning to develop cracks, and the white community was not prepared to face the fact that they had been living in the artificial world of Prince Edward's Happy Negroes.   In an effort to halt the growing national attention to their situation, the school board agreed within four months of the strike to build a new colored school.  Barbara was never able to attend the new school for which she had risked so muchFearing for her safety after a cross was burned on the school grounds, her parents sent her to live with an uncle in Alabama to finish her high school education.  (See Ironies, below.)

The new R. R. Moton School, which opened in September 1953

The new school, which to the whites of Farmville seemed like the end to this silly uproar, was too little, too late.  By now the NAACP was fully on board with the county's black parents, and thus began to urge them to file suit to end racial segregation in the South forever.  It was with great trepidation that they reluctantly agreed to the suit.  Briefly, this suit, called Davis v. School Board of Prince Edward Countywas bundled with four other state law suits and became Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas.  The law suit was named for Dorothy Davis, a fourteen-year-old Moton student who was the first person to sign the petition to bring the suit, which was the only one that was instigated by a student strike.  

Thurgood Marshall

Brown v. Board of Education was ultimately argued successfully in the U.S. Supreme Court by the NAACP's forty-six-year-old attorney Thurgood Marshall, who would go on to become the first black Associate Justice on the Supreme Court.  The 1954 decision was unanimous: Segregation's separate-but-equal laws in the United States were illegal and all public schools in the nation would be desegregated with all deliberate speed.

The Southern Manifesto and Massive Resistance 

Needless to say, the South went absolutely nuts.  Like modern-day conservatives of the far-right variety, Southerners were loath to give up their cultural peculiarities, especially the culture of racism.  Ninety-six Southern legislators from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia in the U.S. Congress formulated and signed the Southern Manifesto opposing racial integration in public places.  In 1956, Virginia's U.S. senator, Harry F. Byrd, originated Massive Resistance, which was based on the 10th Amendment's states rights principles, to oppose integration in the Commonwealth.  A focal point of the issue was that Virginia had the right to close its schools if integration were forced upon its citizens.

Had these politicians spent the same time, energy, passion, and influence with constituents on developing a practical and drama-free plan to integrate Virginia's schools, the social and economic tragedies that ensued would have been avoided.

While other counties and independent cities in the Commonwealth tried closing their schools, it didn't work out too well.  Moderate white parents soon realized that such an action would hurt their children much more than it would resolve a problem, and they demanded that the schools be reopened, integrated or not.

The parents and leaders in Prince Edward County, however, took a different path and closed their schools in 1959.   White parents quickly cobbled together private schools in basements, churches, and any other available spaces.  Blacks were not so fortunate.  Many families were broken apart when parents sent their older children to live with relatives or friends in another county or state.  Children too young to be separated from their parents simply lived without an education during their formative years.  Black teachers lost their jobs and were forced to move elsewhere.

White families also suffered when the more moderate amongst them felt that the schools should be reopened as integrated facilities.  These people were shunned so badly that many of them -- long-time citizens of Prince Edward -- simply moved away to avoid the treatment they continue to receive, and to ensure their children an education.

Four Years of Educational Drought

In 1963,  U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy said at an Emancipation Proclamation celebration: 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.

In 1964, another law suit filed on behalf of Prince Edward blacks was agreed to by the Supreme Court, which ruled that Prince Edward County had violated the students' right to an education and ordered that the schools be reopened.  In the opinion of 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. 

Schools in Prince Edward reopened in September 1964.  Segregation in Virginia had come to an end. 


The uncle to whom Barbara's parents sent her to finish her education was Dr. Vernon Johns, who received his seminary degree at Oberlin Seminary in Oberlin, Ohio.  Vernon Johns was considered a trouble-making minister at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church over which he officiated.  The deacons were unhappy at his insistence in making civil rights a part of his ministry, wishing him to save souls, not push for more black rightsWhen he was fired, his successor turned out to be Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Although there is no indication that they knew each other, remember that Montgomery, Alabama was the city in which Rosa Parks sat down almost five years later.

The R. R. Moton School for Negroes that was built in 1953 is now the R. R. Moton Museum.  

End Note

Memorial to Barbara Rose Johns, in Richmond, dedicated July 2008
Barbara Johns received her higher education at Spelman College near Atlanta, became a librarian, married a minister, and raised a family.   After succeeding  so fully in her quest for a better school for Negroes in Prince Edward County, her activist days were over.

In September 2010, the official portrait of Barbara Rose Johns Powell was unveiled and hung in the Virginia Capitol.

Barbara's daughter and sister, Terri Powell Harrison, left
 and Joan Johns Cobbs, at the unveiling of her portrait in September 2010
Barbara never saw the memorial or her now-famous portrait; she died in 1991.  

What a shame.


For those interested in more information on the struggle to end segregation in Virginia and the entire South, these are excellent sources of information:


The Moderates' Dilemma:  Massive Resistance to School Desegregation in Virginia by Matthew D. Lassiter and Andrew B. Lewis.

They Closed Their Schools, by Bob Smith.


The Rosa Parks Story, with Angela Bassett playing Rosa Parks.  This is the true story of her life, and exposes the erroneous belief that she was nothing more than a woman caught in a bad situation.  

In fact, Rosa Parks had married an active member of the local NAACP in 1932 and had herself been a member of the local NAACP for twelve years when the bus incident occurred.  The movie also details the humiliation she encountered when trying to register to vote.  (Spoiler: she outsmarted them.)  It's an excellent portrayal of the real Rosa Parks.

Separate But Equal, with Sidney Poitier playing Thurgood Marshall, is a comprehensive look at the role the NAACP had in bringing about the end of segregation in America.  It also exposes the schism in black communities over whether complete desegregation was the best solution.

In his last role, Burt Lancaster plays John W. Davis, Marshall's opponent in the Court, arguing for the rights of states to allow them to handle their own public school situations.

The Road to Freedom: The Vernon Johns Story, with James Earl Jones brilliantly playing Vernon Johns.

The first indication that Dr. Vernon Johns just might not be the pastor the deacons thought he was came on the day he was to be introduced and preach his first sermon to the Dexter Avenue's upper-middle-class black congregation.  As the elderly Deacon Wilkes droned on during his introduction about their new minister's brilliance, Johns leaned forward in his pew and whispered to Deacon Hill, What does a white man call a black man with a doctorate?  Deacon Hill shook his head, indicating he didn't know, and Johns said, He calls him Nigger.

James Earl Jones called playing Vernon Johns his favorite role.

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