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Virginia Observes the First Ever Barbara Johns Day to Honor the Student Civil Rights Movement

April 26, 2018

On April 23, 2018, the Commonwealth of Virginia honored Barbara Rose Johns, a courageous 16-year-old African-American student who, in 1951, ignited the Student Civil Rights Movement. Ms. Johns conceived, and led, the historic student walkout at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia. With 400 of her fellow classmates, she marched to the steps of the Prince Edward County courthouse to demand equal education rights.

Robert Russa Moton High School, an all-black high school, suffered from appalling conditions due to underfunding. Repeated funding requests for essential equipment and infrastructure improvements had gone ignored for years, while the all-white school a few blocks away was updated yearly. After years of frustration, Ms. Johns had enough of the school’s massive overcrowding, perpetually leaking ceilings, shabby and broken equipment, and a lack of basic facilities like a cafeteria and gymnasium. That April day, she took a bold step in challenging racism and inequality.

The lawsuit that ensued, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, argued by famed NAACP lawyers Spotswood Robinson and Oliver Hill, three years later became part of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. 75 percent of the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka were from Farmville, Virginia. The Davis case was the only school integration case initiated by a student strike, making Barbara Rose Johns a trailblazer in the Student Civil Rights Movement.

Ms. Johns’ story is typical of many throughout history where those leading the struggle for change were underappreciated in their lifetime. However, Johns’ story shows that as we continue to study history, we learn new lessons from the stories that reveal themselves to us. Ms. Johns fought for quality education for herself and her peers, and her plight helped make quality education accessible for millions of students across the United States. 67 years later, we continue to honor her heroic actions.

The 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution is sharing untold and under-told stories that had an enduring impact on both Virginia and America’s history. American Evolution and the Virginia Tourism Corporation created a video memorializing Barbara Johns story and the Virginia Student Civil Rights Movement. The Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, featuring a statue of Barbara Rose Johns at Richmond’s Capitol Square and the Moton Museum(pictured below), will also be featured in American Evolution’s upcoming Virginia History Trails digital app.