Plaintiff - Brown v. Board of Education
A Student Leads the Way to the
by Cheryl Brown Henderson
Executive Director, Brown Foundation
"Some of the boys in the vocational program visited the shop
at the white school and came back telling us how nice their whole
school was...I remember thinking how unfair it was. I thought about
it a lot in bed that night, and I was still thinking about it the
next day." -- Barbara Johns
More than two hundred plaintiffs and lawyers were involved in the
Brown v. The Board of
Education case decided by United States Supreme Court on May 17,
1954. Their cases were combined in a sweeping strategy by the
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to end
the era of "separate but equal."
Who were these petitioners? Were there women among them? We need to
recognize the achievements of black women in the civil rights
movement. Brown v. The Board of Education is another example of our
patriarchal view of history. In three of the five cases represented
by Brown, the principal petitioners were women from Delaware,
Virginia and Kansas.
the NAACP filed a class action suit in May of 1951 on behalf of 117
African American students enrolled at segregated Moton High School.
For these students in deteriorating buildings without access to many
academic options, social activism became a matter of survival.
Enter Barbara Johns, a junior at Moton High School. Barbara was a
bright African American teen who read about an America that seemed
just outside of her reach. What she saw was not available to her,
solely because she was African American. Her school was supposed to
prepare her for citizenship and participation in the political and
economic life of her country, but she saw that white America was not
interested in her future. Her school was an inadequate structure so
over-crowed that several tarpaper "shacks" stood outside as overflow
Barbara Johns was already a student leader. Articulate and
persuasive, she was convinced that any action for change would have
to come from the African American students. Whites controlled the
wages, jobs, farm mortgages and credit. For black parents,
acceptance was a way of life.
NAACP leaders and the school principal had been unsuccessful in
proposing a new facility to replace the overcrowded and
deteriorating Moton High. After months of official inaction, Barbara
rallied support for what she believed to be their only course, a
Knowing that across town, white students attended a well-equipped,
well-appointed high school had become a discontent too large to
contain. A student strike organized by Barbara Johns began in April
of 1951. Students assembled in the school auditorium to hear Barbara
speak. She asked the faculty to leave and told her classmates that
"It was time that Negroes were treated equally with whites, time
that they had a decent high school, time for the students themselves
to do something about it."
With her words of challenge, the students left the building with
instructions not to leave the school grounds. Some carried signs
asking for better facilities. When the strike was underway, Barbara
Johns and Carrie Stokes sought legal counsel from the NAACP. With
the promise of action, the students agreed to return to school. A
month later, the NAACP filed suit in federal court on behalf of some
of the students including the strike leaders. Their case would
travel all the way to the Supreme Court.
Click here for an
eye-witness account of events as told by her sister Joan Johns Cobb
If you would like to know more about Barbara Johns and the Virginia
case, read Bob Smith's book, They Closed Their Schools: Prince
Edward County, Virginia 1951-1964, published in 1996.