You’ve heard about Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus, but does the name Barbara Johns mean anything to you?
Long before the Montgomery Bus Boycott 16-year-old Barbara took a courageous stand for civil rights when she led fellow students to boycott their segregated high school in the town of Farmville, Virginia.
Here’s a photo of the high school for white students in Farmville in 1951, it had had plenty of classrooms and a gymnasium, cafeteria, infirmary, and other resources.
Barbara’s younger sister Joan Johns Cobb describes the situation at the school for black students.
The school we went to was overcrowded. Consequently, the county decided to build three tarpaper shacks for us to hold classes in. A tarpaper shack looks like a dilapidated black building, which is similar to a chicken coop on a farm…. In winter the school was very cold. And a lot of times we had to put on our jackets. Now, the students that sat closest to the wood stove were very warm and the ones who sat farthest away were very cold…. When it rained, we would get water through the ceiling. So there were lots of pails sitting around the classroom. And sometimes we had to raise our umbrellas to keep the water off our heads. It was a very difficult setting for trying to learn.
The author of the new book THE GIRL FROM THE TAR PAPER SCHOOL, Teri Kanefield says Barbara Johns risked her life, “but she wasn't afraid. She truly believed she was on the right side” the morning she stood up at a school assembly, asked the teachers to leave the auditorium and then asked her fellow students to walk out in protest.
Barbara was a quiet, studious girl. But the morning of April 23, 1951, she took off her shoe and pounded it on the podium to get her point across. "Don't be afraid, just follow us out," she said.
That day, when the curtains opened it was my sister on stage rather than the principal. I was totally shocked, said Joan Johns Cobb. I remember sitting in my seat and trying to go as low in the seat as I possibly could because I was so shocked and so upset. I actually was frightened because I knew that what she was doing was going to have severe consequences.
Because at the time, you still read of lynchings…. And so therefore, everyone was afraid that he or she would be lynched. Even, at the time, for talking back to a white person or in the case of the black men, speaking to a white woman. So we all lived with that type of fear. It was real. It was scary.
Students remained out of school and after two weeks, NAACP lawyers joined the effort, filing a petition in court to desegregate the Prince Edward County schools. In reaction someone burned a cross in the schoolyard, a black minister supporting the strike received death threats and a homemade bomb died out on his doorstep.
Barbara received several threats and her parents sent her out of town to live with an uncle and finish high school.
The legal challenge to segregated schools failed, but three years later, Barbara was one of the plaintiffs in Brown vs Board of Education which outlawed school segregation throughout the land.
Teri Kanefield says Barbara Johns is a reminder that every single day, history is being made. “It has taken almost a half century for her [Barbara] to be widely recognized as a true American hero. This makes me believe there are Barbara Johnses among us now, but we are not recognizing them as visionaries and heroes.”
One of the author’s favorite aspects of the story is that young people convinced the adults to take action.
Tomorrow is the 60th Anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling on Brown Vs Board of Education. Today the Christian Science Monitor reports that since then, any gains in racial integration in American schools have mostly been reversed.
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