A Statue of Barbara Johns Should Replace Robert E. Lee in the U.S. CapitolHistorians in the News
tags: civil rights, public history
BARBARA JOHNS was an 11th-grader in 1951 when, in a daring act of subterfuge, she sent her school principal into town on a wild goose chase, then urged all 450 of her fellow Black students to follow her on a walkout to protest shabby conditions at her Jim Crow-era school. Some were afraid they’d get in trouble, but Johns reassured them. “The Farmville jail isn’t big enough to hold us,” she said.
That was Farmville, Va., a tobacco farming community west of Richmond where the school for African American students lacked a gym, cafeteria or lockers and was so overcrowded that many students, bundled in overcoats in the winter, took classes in tar-paper shacks built to accommodate the overflow. The nearby school for White children had no such problems.
The 16-year-old’s act of defiance led to a lawsuit that landed in the Supreme Court, rolled into Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark desegregation case. Last week, a Virginia advisory committee recommended that a statue of the late Barbara Johns replace that of Robert E. Lee in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall. There it would stand alongside the figure of George Washington, the other statue representing the Old Dominion.
That would be an excellent choice, and Virginia’s General Assembly would be wise to approve it. For by her singular act of courage, she helped set in motion changes that reshaped Virginia’s, and America’s, basic concept of racial fairness.
Johns’s aim, when she led the student body on what became a two-week strike, was ambitious enough: to promote educational equality, she wanted the county to build a better school for Blacks. As an act of political imagination, her move was audacious; after all, this was four years before the bus boycott in Alabama and nine years before the lunch counter sit-ins in North Carolina.
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