(March 6, 1935 – September 25, 1991)
Barbara Rose Johns was born in New York City on March 6, 1935, the eldest of the five children born to Robert Melvin Johns and Violet Spencer Johns, both natives of Prince Edward County, Virginia, who had moved to New York in the hope of finding employment. Following the outbreak of World War II, Robert Johns entered the army and Violet Johns found work in Washington D.C., so Barbara and her siblings were sent to live with her maternal grandmother, Mary Croner Spencer, who owned a small tobacco farm outside Farmville.
Young Barbara learned to pick tobacco and later she worked alongside her parents in a small country store owned by her uncle, the Reverend Vernon Johns. Vernon Johns, a charismatic Baptist minister, was an ardent activist on behalf of civil rights. He encouraged his niece to study African American history and inspired her to question inequality and injustice.
Barbara Johns was educated in the segregated public schools of Prince Edward County, enrolling in the all-black Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville in 1949. Frustrated by the overcrowding and dilapidated conditions at the school and the refusal of the local school board to build a new high school that would be comparable to the county’s school for white students, she decided to take action.
In April 1951, near the end of her junior year, she met with several classmates and together they organized a student strike. On April 23, more than 450 Moton students walked out of the school and marched to the courthouse and to the homes of local school officials to protest the unequal conditions in the county schools. Several days into the strike, the students sought legal counsel from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The NAACP sent civil rights lawyers Oliver Hill and Spotswood Robinson to Prince Edward County to meet with the students. Moved by the determination of Barbara Johns and her classmates, they agreed to file a lawsuit on their behalf if the suit asked for full integration of the county’s public schools rather than just for a separate but equal new facility. The student leaders, supported by their parents and most of the local African American community, agreed and a month later the NAACP filed Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County in federal court. (Dorothy E. Davis, daughter of a local farmer, was the first name on the list of students wishing to file suit, hence the case bears her name instead of that of Barbara Johns.)
The court upheld the status quo in Prince Edward County, and the NAACP appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court combined its ruling in the Davis case with four other similar cases in what became the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision that declared segregation in the nation’s public schools unconstitutional. Rather than obey a court order to integrate its schools, Prince Edward County closed all public schools in 1959.
Many white students attended hastily organized private academies, but black students were left on their own. Some went to other localities or states to continue their education, some were home schooled, but many young African Americans went without schooling until the public schools reopened in 1964.
Fearing reprisals against their daughter for her part in the student strike, Johns’s parents sent her to Montgomery, Alabama, where her uncle Vernon was serving as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. She lived with her uncle’s family while she completed high school and then studied at Spelman College in Atlanta for two years.
In 1954, she married William Rowland Powell, a minister. She moved with him to Philadelphia, where she raised a family of five children and worked for 24 years as a school librarian. She did not participate in the civil rights movement in Philadelphia or elsewhere and never spoke about her contributions to the movement as a teenager. Her husband and children only became aware of her involvement late in her life, when she was contacted by someone interested in making a film about the Moton student strike.
Barbara Johns Powell died of cancer in Philadelphia in 1991. When her husband retired in 1999 and was packing to move to Virginia, he discovered a manuscript account that she had never finished describing in her own words her decision to organize the student strike.
In July 2008, the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial honoring the contributions of Barbara Johns and other citizens of Prince Edward County was unveiled in a prominent location in Capitol Square, close to the Executive Mansion. In 2010, Virginia artist Louis Briel completed a portrait of Johns, which hung for several months in the State Capitol before being permanently installed in the Robert Russa Moten Museum in Farmville. The portrait is currently on-loan and on display in Virginia’s Executive Mansion following a request by Governor McAuliffe and First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe. – Submitted by Brian Coy