Barbara Johns was 16 when she led her classmates at an all-Black high school in Virginia in protest of shabby conditions, leading to a lawsuit that became part of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case that eventually ended school segregation. After almost 70 years, a statue of Johns, who died in 1991, will be installed in the U.S. Capitol, replacing that of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, officials said Monday.
A statue of the general that has represented Virginia in the U.S. Capitol for 111 years was removed from the National Statuary Hall Collection early Monday morning. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam had asked that the statue is removed. In June, Northam also announced plans to remove the statue of the general along Monument Avenue amid protests for racial justice in the U.S. in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.
At the time, monuments connected to slavery and colonialism became the target of Black Lives Matter protesters across the world. Statues on Richmond’s Monument Avenue were toppled by protesters or removed by the city.
Since 1909, the statue of Lee had stood with that of George Washington as Virginia’s representatives in the Capitol space. Every state gets two statues, according to law. Lee’s statue removal this week has been described by Northam as an “important step forward” for the state. “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.
The state commission has recommended replacing Lee’s statue with a statue of Johns, though it is unclear when the statue will be erected for display. What is however clear is that Johns’ daring act of leading a walkout in 1951, many years before the bus boycott in Alabama and the lunch counter sit-ins, has helped shaped America.
Johns was a student at the all-Black Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia when she led her classmates on the two-week strike, during which they refused to attend classes. Johns’ school at the time lacked facilities such as science labs, a cafeteria, lockers, and a gym, according to a report. The school was so overcrowded that many students took classes in tar-paper shacks built to hold the overflow of students. The school nearby for White children did not have such challenges.
Johns first complained to a teacher about the school’s poor conditions. “Why don’t you do something about it?” the teacher asked her, according to the Moton Museum. Thus, Johns, an 11th-grader, urged her classmates, numbering 450, to follow her on a walkout to protest the conditions at her school on April 23, 1951. The Virginia chapter of the NAACP responded to their protest and took on their case. In three years, their case, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, became part of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that declared that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
In Virginia, White officials, who were against desegregation, mounted a campaign of “massive resistance”. County officials closed down public schools instead of integrating them, reports said. Johns’ parents moved her to Alabama to continue her schooling following threats she received. She later graduated from Drexel University in Philadelphia, where she lived for the rest of her life, becoming a librarian after college.
Now, the spot in the U.S. capitol, where a statue of Lee had been, is awaiting the unveiling of Johns’ statue. “I look forward to seeing a statue of Barbara Johns, whose bravery changed our nation, representing Virginia here soon,” representative Donald McEachin of Virginia said on Twitter.
This is among the many recognitions Johns has received for her role in the civil rights movement. The first day of her two-week strike with her classmates, April 23, is celebrated in Virginia as Barbara Johns Day. A community library in Farmville and a building housing the Virginia Office of the Attorney General have also been named after her.