Barbara Johns: The Teenager Who Led A Revolution Against Segregation
by Lela Casey
There are an array of problems in America that seem almost insurmountable today. Gun violence, police brutality, and racial injustice are just some of the issues that are plaguing our country. It is easy to sink into a sense of hopelessness that any meaningful changes can be made. During such troubled times, it is helpful to look back through other historical moments, when things seemed hopeless, and yet… through the leadership of a few brave individuals, monumental societal changes were made.
The 1950’s were also a dark time for many Americans. Although slavery had been abolished in 1865, Jim Crow Laws kept African Americans living under poor living conditions. Many heroes stood up to fight against these unjust laws. Among them were the thirteen parents who took on the Topeka, Kansas Board of Education. However, there was a much younger hero whose story is less often told.
Barbara Johns was a high school student living on a tobacco farm in Farmville, Virginia with her maternal grandmother in the 1950’s. She spent hours every day working in the fields or at her uncle, Civil Right’s leader, Reverend Vernon Johns’ store. She was a quiet, introverted girl and enjoyed learning. School should have been a welcome break from the hard, manual work she had to do. However, the condition of schools for black students made them undesirable places to learn.
“The school we went to was overcrowded. Consequently, the county decided to build three tarpaper shacks for us to hold classes in. A tarpaper shack looks like a dilapidated black building, which is similar to a chicken coop on a farm. It’s very unsightly. In winter the school was very cold. And a lot of times we had to put on our jackets. Now, the students that sat closest to the wood stove were very warm and the ones who sat farthest away were very cold. And I remember being cold a lot of times and sitting in the classroom with my jacket on. When it rained, we would get water through the ceiling. So there were lots of pails sitting around the classroom. And sometimes we had to raise our umbrellas to keep the water off our heads. It was a very difficult setting for trying to learn.” Her sister Joan recalls.
Despite the unpleasant learning conditions, few students dared to speak out. Jim Crow laws were maintained by using fear and intimidation to keep people from protesting against inferior facilities.
“People were afraid of lynchings. That was the thing that was foremost in everyone’s mind. Because at the time, you still read of lynchings and you heard about lynchings. And so therefore, everyone was afraid that he or she would be lynched. Even, at the time, for talking back to a white person or in the case of the black men, speaking to a white woman. So we all lived with that type of fear. It was real. It was scary.” Joan noted.
Despite the real fear of repercussions, 16 year old Barbara decided to take a stand. The school she attended was built to hold 200 students and already had twice that amount. Kids were learning in school buses and auditoriums. When the parents appealed to the school board for a new school, several tar paper shacks were built to appease them.
Barbara decided that enough was enough. She held a secret meeting with some of her classmates and formed a strike committee to develop a plan. On April 23, 1951, that plan was enacted.
The strike committee arranged to have a report made to the principal that some students were downtown causing trouble. While the principal was gone, they congregated the entire school in the auditorium.
Once all 450 students were gathered, Barbara delivered a speech urging them to stand up against the separate and unequal learning conditions for black and white students. She encouraged them all to join her in a strike. For the quiet Johns, this foray into public speaking was a rarity. She attributed her bravery to a higher power.
“The plan I felt was divinely inspired because I hadn’t been able to think of anything until then. The plan was to assemble together the student council members…From this, we would formulate plans 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 and people would hear us and see us and understand our difficulty and would sympathize with our plight and would grant us our new school building and our teachers would be proud and the students would learn more and it would be grand…”
And grand it was. The following day, with the support of most of their parents, the students marched down to the county courthouse and into the office of School Superintendent T. J. McIlwaine with placards proclaiming, “We want a new school or none at all” and “Down with tar-paper shacks.”
Although the Superintendent met their passion with indifference, the march set off a wave of changes that would have much larger repercussions.
After the NAACP heard of the students’ strike, they agreed to help their cause as long as the families were willing to sue for integration, not just better learning conditions. The town held a community meeting, during which Johns silenced the few voices of dissent. Soon afterwards, The Farmville case became of one of the five cases that the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka when it declared segregation unconstitutional in 1954.
After her tremendous act of bravery, Barbara went on to live a quiet life as a mother and librarian. But, the impact she made as a teenager lives on.
On Aug 17, 2017 in an interview with CBS This Morning, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe spoke about the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA with a portrait of Barbara Johns in the background. He called the White Supremacists cowards and said:
“Over my shoulder is Barbara Johns who at 16 lead the revolt at Prince Edward County, VA. Where we had white school and black schools, where she said our schools are inferior. And she led a revolt of over 400 students in the 50’s. This is what we need for leaders.”
Indeed, it is exactly this type of leadership and bravery that is what is needed to make real changes. And that leadership can come from many different sources… including 16 year old girls.