By Nora Pehrson
Today—April 23, 2021—marks the seventieth anniversary of the 1951 Moton School Strike in Farmville, Virginia, the student-organized walkout led by sixteen-year-old high school junior Barbara Johns (1935-1991) that propelled the long battle for the desegregation of public schools in Virginia and the nation.
Before the teenagers at Robert Russa Moton High School served as plaintiffs in Davis, et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia’s court case for integration, they were focused on improving conditions and expanding the curriculum at their own, all-Black school, which was chronically underfunded by the Prince Edward County school board but no less self-sufficient as an institution and a community of faculty and students. In recognition of Barbara Johns Day, an official state holiday since 2018, and in honor of the grassroots student activism behind Virginia’s Civil Rights Movement (pictured above), we’re sourcing from entries in our Encyclopedia Virginia to bring you the circuitous, decades-spanning story of how Virginia’s schools eventually came to be integrated. It’s the backstory behind the Brown v. Board case that still too few Virginians know, and it starts with Johns and her peers, in Farmville, Virginia.
The Moton students walked out on April 23 in protest of the outdated, overcrowded conditions at their school, which had long been ignored by white school board officials despite repeated requests from Moton administrators and parents for increased funding. In an undated reflection written later, as an adult, Johns described the reasons for the walkout, explaining how she and her classmates were “unhappy with the school facility and its inadequacies. It wasn’t fair that we had such a poor facility, equipment, etc., when our white counterparts enjoyed science laboratories, a huge facility, separate gym dept. Etc.” Built in 1939 as the first all-Black high school in Prince Edward County and named for Robert Russa Moton (1867-1940), a prominent Black educator who succeeded Booker T. Washington as principal of the Tuskegee Institute, Moton was originally intended to house 180 students. By 1951, however, student enrollment numbers exceeded 400. Outside, tarpaper shacks lacking proper heating and plumbing, as well as a repurposed school bus, served as makeshift classrooms. As Johns recalled, Moton had no gymnasium, cafeteria, science lab, or athletic field—basic amenities available at Farmville High School, the whites-only facility located nearby.
Johns, a noted orator with family ties to the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement (her well-known uncle, Vernon Johns, preceded Martin Luther King, Jr. as reverend of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama), urged her classmates to action: “It was time that Negroes were treated equally with whites, time that they had a decent school, time for the students themselves to do something about it. There wasn’t any fear. I just thought — this is your moment. Seize it!” (The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, PBS, 2002).More than 450 students participated in the walkout on April 23, which was followed by an afternoon of peaceful protest in the area surrounding the school. The students carried handmade signs whose slogans declared the purpose of the protest in straightforward terms: “We want a new school or none at all,” and “Down with tar-paper shacks.”
The walkout turned into a two-week strike. During that time, Moton students contacted the Virginia chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for additional support. Spottswood Robinson III and Oliver Hill, Virginia lawyers and leading proponents of integration, arrived in Farmville on April 25. Impressed by the highly organized, purposeful student group that they found there, the lawyers agreed to take the case on the condition that the students shift their goal: instead of pushing for a renovated but still segregated Moton, they would sue for the integration of public schools in Prince Edward County. Thus, Dorothy E. Davis, et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, the suit filed against the school district by Robinson and Hill on May 23, 1951, challenged the constitutionality of segregation itself.
Predictably, the U.S. District court in Richmond came down in favor of keeping schools segregated, issuing a unanimous verdict that declared, “We have found no hurt or harm to either race.” Undeterred, Robinson and Hill appealed the Virginia case before the Supreme Court, where, along with four other school desegregation cases from South Carolina, Delaware, Kansas, and Washington, DC, it was consolidated into Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Notably, a majority of the student plaintiffs in Brown—117 of the 167—were students from Prince Edward County. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Even after the Supreme Court declared segregation unconstitutional, however, state officials in the south blocked federally mandated integration at every turn. In Virginia, segregationists Harry F. Byrd and J. Lindsay Almond Jr. enacted a statewide policy of Massive Resistance that entailed shuttering public schools altogether rather than complying with federal orders to integrate. In Prince Edward County, public schools—including Moton—closed for five years, from September 1959 to September 1964. In Farmville and across Prince Edward County, white students relocated to newly established, segregated private schools such as Prince Edward Academy, funded by state tuition grants and donations from segregationists. In the absence of formal schools—and in the midst of an ongoing court battle for their reopening, led by Reverend L. Francis Griffin of Farmville’s First Baptist Church—some Black students lived with relatives or host families across Virginia and the U.S. Some attended makeshift classes at local churches and other community venues. In the summer of 1963, many took to the streets in protest.
On May 25, 1964, the Supreme Court ruled in Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward that schools be reopened, and on September 8 of that year, 1,500 Prince Edward County students began public school for the first time in five years. Even then, it wasn’t until 1968, when the Supreme Court overturned the “freedom of choice” strategy of Massive Resistance in Green et al. v. County School Board of New Kent County, Virginia, that integration truly went into effect on a large scale.
Who, following the 1951 walkout in Farmville, could have foreseen the thirteen-year struggle that would ensue? Barbara Johns and her fellow strikers expected change in Prince Edward County, and in walking out, they demanded and finally forced it. In her undated account of the Moton strike, Johns reflected on the frustrating ironies of agitating for equality within a civic system seemingly premised on its denial: “We would make signs and I would give a speech stating our dissatisfaction and we would march out the school and people would hear us and see us and understand our difficulty and would sympathize with our plight and would grant us our new school building and our teachers would be proud and the students would learn more, and it would be grand. And we would live happily ever after.”
“The Moton strike challenges popular national myths about the U.S. Civil Rights Movement,” says Justin Reid, director of Community Initiatives at Virginia Humanities and a Farmville native who previously worked at the Moton Museum & National Historic Landmark. “Here you have courageous high school students, rallied by a 16-year-old girl, in a rural farming town, convincing adults to join a movement for justice in 1951. Throughout our history and now, young people and Black women have been the vanguard of true democracy.”
Facing harassment from white neighbors after the strike, Johns left Farmville and finished high school in Montgomery, Alabama, where she lived with her uncle, the Rev. Vernon Johns. She went on to attend Spelman College, graduated from Drexel University, and pursued a career as a librarian in the Philadelphia public school system, a position she held until her death in 1991.
Robert Russa Moton High School became a National Historic Landmark in 1998 and opened as the Moton Museum on April 23, 2001, the fiftieth anniversary of the walkout. You can take a virtual tour of the museum through our Encyclopedia Virginia.
In 2008, a sculpture of Johns was erected as part of a Civil Rights Memorial on Capitol Square. In 2017, the Virginia Attorney General’s office building was renamed in honor of Johns. As of December 2020, a statue of Johns is set to replace a statue of Robert E. Lee that was removed from the U.S. Capitol. And in February of this year, the Virginia Senate voted to remove a statue of Harry F. Byrd from Richmond’s Capitol Square; the removal date is set for July.
This story was made possible by Encyclopedia Virginia entries on the Moton School Strike, Oliver Hill, Spottswood William Robinson III, and others, cited in the text. A biographical entry on Barbara Johns herself is currently in the works; stay tuned for its publication. Check out, too, these additional resources on the Moton School Strike from Virginia Humanities: “The Making of a Civil Rights Museum,” and “Strike,” With Good Reason episodes featuring interviews with the Moton Museum’s then director Lacy Ward; and “Teen Activists: A History of Youth Politics and Protest,” a BackStory episode with an opening segment on the history of the strike.