When Barbara Johns was just 16 years old, she led a walkout at her high school to protest poor and unequal school conditions. The moment is one that many historians believe helped launch the desegregation movement in the US.
Now, Johns — who died in 1991 — will be memorialized at the US Capitol, replacing Virginia’s statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
By law, all states are allowed to donate two statues to the US Capitol for display around the building as part of the National Statuary Hall Collection, and they’re able to replace existing statues through a process that involves the state’s legislature and governor.
The removal of the statue of Lee — one of several statues around the Capitol depicting Confederate soldiers and officials — is part of a larger trend of relegating symbols of the Confederacy, due to their racist nature.
In a statement, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam described the removal of Lee’s statue 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.
It’s not clear when the statue of Johns will be erected for display — but Northam’s office announced that the statue of Lee was removed from the US Capitol overnight on Sunday.
Johns’ school was overcrowded
In 1951, at the time of the walkout, Johns attended the all-Black Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia.
When Johns was a student, the school’s facilities lacked science labs, a gym and a cafeteria, according to Encyclopedia Virginia. There was no plumbing. The school equipment was old and shabby — especially compared to the equipment at the nearby all-White Farmville High School. The buildings were heated by wood stoves.
The school was also overcrowded — though it was built to accommodate 180 students, it was being used for more than 400 at the time, according to Encyclopedia Virginia. The county had built several freestanding buildings of plywood and tar paper in an attempt to hold the overflowing students.
When Johns complained to a teacher about the school’s conditions, the Moton Museum said, she got this response: “Why don’t you do something about it?”
So she did.
On April 23, 1951, Johns led her classmates on a two-week strike, during which students refused to attend classes.
Their actions got the attention of the Virginia chapter of the NAACP, who agreed to take on their case to challenge the constitutionality of segregation, Moton Museum said.
Three years later, in 1954, their case — Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County — was one of the five bundled with the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which declared school segregation unconstitutional.
Johns’ legacy lives on
In 1953, Johns and her peers were able to move into a new school with facilities that were just as good as the nearby all-White school, Encyclopedia Virginia reported.
Still, Prince Edward County, the county where Farmville is located, continued to fight desegregation for years following Johns’ protest and Brown v. Board.
White Virginians launched a campaign of massive resistance, according to the Brown v. Board of Education NHS Visitor Center website.
“The Board of Supervisors for Prince Edward County refused to appropriate any funds for the County School Board for the period 1959-1964,” the website states, “effectively closing the public schools rather than integrate them.” The county schools remained closed for five years.
Johns, however, moved to Alabama to finish her schooling and ultimately graduated from Drexel University in Philadelphia, according to the Moton Museum. She went on to become a librarian after college.
Her US Capitol statue will be the latest public recognition of her contribution to the Civil Rights movement.
In 2017, the building housing the Virginia Office of the Attorney General was named after her.
April 23 — the first day of the historic strike — is celebrated in Virginia as Barbara Johns Day.
And in Farmville, a community library bears her name.