By April, 1951, students at Robert Moton High School in Farmville, VA had had enough of their substandard school facilities. The school facilities for the white students had enough room, well-equipped science labs, a gymnasium, a lighted and well-manicured athletic field, modern furniture and new textbooks. Facilities at Robert Moton High School were overcrowded, had no gym, no science lab, no central heat, and an unlit athletic field with a broken-down fence. Barbara Johns, a 16-year old student at Moton, prayed about what she could do about the situation. She then led a student strike for better facilities. She appealed to her classmates to engage in this strike in a meeting the students called in the school auditorium. Today I stood in that very auditorium and imagined her charismatic presence at that historic student meeting.
This student strike caught the attention of NAACP lawyers Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson. These lawyers came to Farmville to meet with the students, at Barbara’s request. They came with the intention of urging the students to go back to school, but when they saw the commitment and energy of the students, they agreed to work with them. The students and their families brought a lawsuit against the Prince Edward County school district. Rather than just asking for better facilities, the students followed the advice of their lawyers and brought a complaint against the very practice of segregated schools. This lawsuit eventually became one of the five separate cases that comprised the Brown v Board of Education Case. This case resulted in the unanimous Supreme Court decision in 1954 that stated that segregated schools were unconstitutional. Almost everyone can tell you something about the Brown v Board Supreme Court case, but it seems that almost no one knows the name of Barbara Johns.
I am in awe of Barbara Johns and what she was able to accomplish way back in 1951. This was long before there was a “Civil Rights Movement.” This was such a courageous, visionary act on her part and on the part of the whole student body, that I am completely humbled by their actions.
Unfortunately, even though their actions led to the successful Supreme Court decision, the response of the school authorities to this Supreme Court decision was creative, tenacious, and … despicable. Rather than integrate the schools, these officials closed the public schools and left them chained for five years. This act on their part only hurt the black children, because a well-financed private school system was developed to replace the closed public schools. The black families had no chance of being able to afford the tuition at this private school system, so they were forced to go without education for five years. I can hardly comprehend the cruelty of people who could do this to children. This did not get the press attention that Birmingham and Montgomery got, because the drama took place slowly, in the courts. But the cruelty and violence of this activity seems to me to be equal to anything I’ve seen elsewhere on this trip.
The Robert Moton Museum, which is in the former Robert Moton High School, is one of the best places we’ve visited.