In December 2020, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced that a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee which has represented the state of Virginia in the United States Capitol since 1909 would be replaced with a statue honoring Barbara Rose Johns, a civil rights activist and Drexel alumna with an inspiring story.
Johns was born in New York City in 1935 but grew up in Virginia where her family relocated to live with her grandmother. Her interest in Black history was sparked by her uncle Vernon Johns, a pioneer of the civil rights movement and pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church (where he was eventually succeeded by Martin Luther King, Jr.). Her uncle’s influence played a role in inspiring Johns to become an activist herself.
In 1951, at the age of 16, Johns organized a student walkout at the Robert Russa Moton High School, a segregated school for Black students, to protest its substandard conditions. The overcrowded classrooms in Virginia’s segregated schools lacked proper heating and had no laboratories, gym, or cafeteria. Johns and her classmates had to wear winter coats in their classrooms to endure the cold and the roof leaked when it rained. The all-white school across town, however, did not have any of these problems. The parents of the Black students made an appeal to the school board requesting equal resources, but their attempts were futile, leading Johns to take action. After meeting with several classmates regarding the unequal distribution of resources and the quality of the facilities provided to the Black students, Johns organized a strike.
On April 23, 1951, Johns managed to distract the principal of her school and gathered 450 students for a ‘special assembly’ during which she revealed her plans to strike in order to protest the unequal division of resources between the segregated schools. The students agreed to participate, and, on that day, they marched down to the county courthouse to make officials aware of the large difference in quality between the white and black schools. Johns had hoped that the strike would end with the county officials agreeing to build a new school but was instead met with indifference. For the remainder of the day students picketed the school, both inside and outside, with placards proclaiming, "We want a new school or none at all" and "Down with tar-paper shacks."
Johns decided that legal action was the next necessary step, and she contacted the Richmond, Va. Branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). The organization agreed to help her with the condition that she change the focus of her suit: rather than push for a new school building, her lawsuit would push for integration. Lawyers Oliver Hill, Martin A. Martin and Spottswood Robinson III filed Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County. The NAACP lawyers ultimately consolidated the Davis case and four others addressing school segregation as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the famous case in which the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1954, officially ruled that segregated public schools are inherently unequal and, therefore, unconstitutional. Because the Davis case was the only one initiated by a student protest, the 1951 strike led by Barbara Johns is seen as a crucial step towards the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.
Although the Brown case was a decisive victory that helped fuel the Civil Rights Movement, it did not mark the end of racial inequalities in or outside of the classroom. For her role mobilizing students in the fight for integration, Johns began to receive threats and was the target of harassment from the Ku Klux Klan. Fearing for her safety, Johns’ parents sent her to live with relatives in Montgomery, Alabama, where she finished high school. Johns maintained a quiet life in her adulthood: she pursued her degree in library science from Drexel University and married Reverend William Powell, with whom she raised five children. Johns worked as a librarian for the Philadelphia Public Schools until her death in 1991. In 2019, Johns was featured in the New York Times series Overlooked No More, “a collection of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.” Johns' legacy is kept alive at the Moton Museum, where the former Robert Russa Moton High School has become National Historic Landmark and museum of America’s student-led civil rights revolution.
The removal of Confederate statues and monuments is part of a larger trend led by anti-racism activists across the nation, which gained momentum during the 2020 protests over George Floyd’s death. By law, all states are allowed to donate two statues to the U.S. Capitol for display, and each state’s legislature and governor have the ability to replace existing statues. In a statement, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam described the significance of replacing the divisive Lee statue.
“I look forward to seeing a trailblazing young woman of color represent Virginia in the U.S. Capitol, where visitors will learn about Barbara Johns’ contributions to America and be empowered to create positive change in their communities just like she did,” he said.