Editors’ Note: The New York Times has an occasional series featuring obituaries of women whose life stories have been overlooked. This was published May 8, 2019.
By Lance Booth
The plan was daring, even risky: Convince the entire all-black student body to walk out of school and not return until the government gave them a bigger, better building — one like the white students had.
Yet if Barbara Johns, a 16-year-old student at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Va., was daunted, she did not show it as she announced the plan from the school’s auditorium stage.
Barbara would achieve more than she had hoped: She would help change the entire education system in the United States by taking part in one of five cases that would be consolidated into Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case in which the justices unanimously ruled that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional.
The case Barbara would join, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, would not only have the largest group of plaintiffs; it would also be the only one that was led by students.
But that was all in the future on that April 23, 1951, day, as 450 students awaited her instruction in the auditorium. After she proposed the walkout, some students said they were afraid they’d get into trouble with the school authorities or even arrested.
Barbara responded, “The Farmville jail isn’t big enough to hold us.”
There were many experiences in Barbara’s life that had led her to organize the protest, but the catalyst came one morning earlier that month when she had a particularly difficult time getting to school.
She had just finished helping her four younger siblings get dressed, shuffled them out the door and left for school herself when she realized that she had forgotten her lunch and ran back home to retrieve it. By then she had missed her school bus and wound up stranded on the side of the road trying to hitchhike a ride to make it to class on time.
An hour passed. No luck.
Then she saw the “white bus” go by; unlike her usual bus, a segregated one for black students that was always overcrowded, this one was half empty.
“Right then and there,” she later wrote in an unpublished diary, “I decided that indeed something had to be done about this inequality.”
Her small, single-story school building, with more than 450 students, was so crowded that tarpaper shacks had been built outside to handle the overflow. Cold winter days made it especially difficult for the students there to concentrate. The nearest all-white school was in better condition and more spacious, with two stories for fewer than 400 students. Barbara’s school had no laboratories, no gym and no cafeteria. There was a music teacher, however, and Barbara confided in her.
“I told her it wasn’t fair that we had such a poor facility, equipment, etc,” she wrote in the diary.
The teacher, she continued, “paused for a few moments and asked, ‘Why don’t you do something about it?’ I was surprised at her question, but it did not occur to me to ask what she meant. I just slowly turned away, as I felt she had dismissed me with that reply.” But then she gave her teacher’s suggestion more thought and rounded up a group of students to consider their options.
“From this,” she wrote, “we would formulate a plan to go on strike. We would make signs, and I would give a speech stating our dissatisfaction, and we would march out of the school.” Her younger sister, Joan Johns Cobbs, said in a telephone interview that Barbara forged a note to the teachers, purportedly from the principal, telling them to assemble the student body. When everyone gathered, “there was no principal there, and instead it was my sister on the stage,” Cobbs said. “All the students, like me, were in shock.”
Barbara Johns proceeded to walk out of the building. Everyone followed. “I was surprised the whole thing worked,” Cobbs said.
The students did not return to school for two weeks. But rather than receiving promises of a new building, they were met with vague threats from the schools superintendent, who said their parents would find themselves in trouble if the students did not return.
Barbara decided legal action was the next step, and she contacted the NAACP’s branch office in Richmond, Va., about 65 miles east of Farmville. “The phone rang and it was Barbara Johns,” Oliver Hill, a lawyer who would help lead the Brown case, said in an interview for the 2004 documentary “Beyond Brown: Pursuing the Promise.” “She wanted us to take her case and handle it. She was so insistent.”
“Initially, nobody dared dream beyond a separate facility with proper equipment and good buildings,” Johns told The Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1988. “But once the lawyers explained that integration would be the best way for us to accomplish our goals, I said, ‘Certainly. Let’s go for it all.’ ” The NAACP lawyers ultimately consolidated Davis and four other cases addressing school segregation as Brown v. Board of Education before appealing to the Supreme Court.
As well as being the only case that had originated with students, Davis stood out because it accounted for a majority of the plaintiffs in Brown, said Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. “Barbara Johns’ action helped accelerate the plan,” Ifill said. “People should know her name.”
Barbara Johns was born in Harlem on March 6, 1935, to Robert and Violet Johns. The family moved to a farm in Darlington Heights, Va., about 15 miles outside of Farmville. Her father worked on the farm, and her mother traveled to Washington to work Sundays to Fridays as a clerk for the Navy.
Johns graduated from Drexel University in Philadelphia, where she received a degree in library science and worked as a librarian for the Philadelphia school system. She married the Rev. William Holland Roland Powell, and they had five children.
Johns lived the rest of life out of the spotlight. She died of bone cancer in 1991 at 56.
In 2008, a sculpture of Johns was unveiled on the grounds of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond as part of a Virginia Civil Rights Memorial. In 2017, the building that houses the state attorney general’s offices was renamed the Barbara Johns Building, and the Farmville library was dedicated to her. Last year the state celebrated its first Barbara Johns Day, on April 23.