Barbara Johns leads Prince Edward County student walkout
The most significant post-World War II student action before SNCC took place in Prince Edward County, Virginia, a decade before the sit-in movement of the 1960s. This harbinger of the later Movement was led by sixteen-year-old Barbara Johns.
In 1950, she was a sophomore at the Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia, the only high school for Blacks in Prince Edward County. It was designed to hold 180 students, but it had 477. Classrooms built to handle the overflow were made of tar paper that students nicknamed “chicken coops.” The roofs leaked, and students sat under umbrellas when it rained. Pot bellied stoves heated classrooms in winter.
The school also lacked a gymnasium and cafeteria. Edwilda Allen, a classmate of Johns’ recalled that in her biology lab, “the only person who had the microscope was the teacher and she had the frog and we all had to gather around to see her dissect it.” Students also used hand-me-down textbooks from the white school. Oftentimes they had negative comments in the margins and pages torn out. “I came to realize,” explained, John Stokes, student body vice president, “that by … providing schools that were grossly unequal to the ones white children attended, the white power structure was programming us to fail.”
One October morning in 1950, Barbara Johns missed her bus to school, and while waiting for a ride, the bus carrying white students to their much better-equipped school passed her by. On the spot, she decided that school inequality needed to be challenged and shortly after held a meeting with a half dozen of the Moton school’s student leaders on cinder block bleachers facing the school’s athletic field. They began planning a strike for late spring.
This planning committee dubbed their project “the Manhattan Project” and spent months secretly planning the student strike. “We planned this thing to the gnat’s eyebrow,” recalled Stokes. They discussed strategies for gaining community support and the possibility of jail time. They made pickets and catchy slogans to win over the student body. The committee even checked the weather report for the designated date (D-day), April 23, 1951.
The day of the walk-out, Principal M. Boyd Jones received a phone call. Muffled voices told him that several of his students were causing trouble downtown. As the principal rushed out the doors, teachers received notice of a school-wide assembly. Teachers led their classes to the auditorium. When the curtain raised, Barbara Johns was standing on the assembly stage. She announced that the assembly was for students and asked teachers to wait outside. She then passionately argued for a student strike. After she finished, the entire student body walked out and began picketing the school. The picketing did not last long, however. Word came down that the students were trespassing on school property and would be arrested if they didn’t leave immediately.
Though powerless with regard to decision-making about Moton school, there was county-wide black support for the strike. The Moton Parent-Teacher Association had long tried to work through the school board to improve their children’s education, but the board was apathetic and dismissive, especially when the PTA pushed for a new building. By April 1951, it seemed like nothing could be accomplished by cooperating with the white power structure.
The strike lasted two weeks with Farmville minister Rev. L. Francis Griffin giving immediate and consistent support to the students throughout. During the strike, the students met with the white superintendent who told them that Moton was just as nice as any other school in Prince Edward County and that money was being procured by the school board for a larger building. Fed up with this recalcitrance, the students called the NAACP office in Richmond, who sent out two lawyers–Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson–to review the situation. The lawyers told the student protesters that they could only take on their case if they demanded full integration with the white school. After careful deliberation, the students and their parents agreed and filed a suit to integrate the Prince Edward County school system. Known as Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, it became one of the five cases involved in Brown v. the Board of Education, which legally dismantled public school segregation.
In response to the Supreme Court’s decision, Virginia closed its public schools for five years. The Johns’ home was burned down, and the family eventually moved to Washington, D.C. When sit-ins erupted in Farmville in 1963, SNCC sent Ivanhoe Donaldson to assist.
Teri Kanefield, The Girl from the Tar Paper School: Barbara Johns and the Advent of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2014).
Richard Kluger, Simple Justice: The History of Brown V. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality (New York: Vintage Books, 2004).
John A. Stokes, Students on Strike: Jim Crow, Civil Rights, and Me (Washington D.C.: National Geographic, 2008).
Jill Ogline Titus, Brown’s Battleground: Students, Segregationists, and the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, Virginia (Chapel Hill: The University of Carolina Press, 2011).
Interview with Edwilda Allen Issac by George Gilliam and Mason Mills, 2000, The Ground Beneath Our Feet Project, Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia.
Interview with Edwilda Allen Issac by Robert Sawyers, May 5, 2012, Old Dominion University Libraries Digital Collection.
Interview with John A. Stokes by Virginia Historical Society, March 21, 2003, Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries Digital Collection.