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Barbara Johns



Plaintiff - Brown v. Board of Education


A Student Leads the Way to the Highest Court
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.


In Virginia, 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 classrooms.


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 student strike.


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.


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