Civil rights activist and school desegregationist Barbara Rose Johns will be honored with a statue in the United States Capitol, which will replace a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
On Monday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced that Lee’s statue, which signified Virginia’s contribution to the National Statuary Hall Collection 100 years ago, will be replaced with a statue of Johns. Lee’s statue was removed from the Capitol overnight, according to The Hill.
Johns’ imagery was chosen among a list of notable contenders: John Mercer Langston, Virginia’s first African American member of Congress; Pocahontas; and Maggie L. Walker, a Richmond entrepreneur and civic leader, the Richmond-Times Dispatch reports.
Johns was born in New York City in 1935 but raised in Virginia where her family relocated to live with her grandmother in Prince Edward County. At 16, Johns became enraged over the inadequate facilities for students at Robert Russa Moton High School, an all-Black school. When she shared her grievances with a teacher, they responded by asking, “Why don’t you do something about it?”
Johns later wrote in her memoir that she interpreted her teacher’s response as dismissive and after weeks of contemplating action, she orchestrated a strike among her classmates which began on April 23, 1951.
“The plan was to assemble together the student council members…. From this, we would formulate plans to go on strike. We would make signs and I would give a speech stating our dissatisfaction and we would march out [of] 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…” she wrote according to the Robert Russa Moton Museum.
Her organizing caught the attention of the NAACP lawyers Spottswood Robinson and Oliver Hill who after speaking with Young, her fellow classmates and community members, filed a lawsuit at the federal courthouse in Richmond, Virginia. The case, Davis vs. Prince Edward, became one of the five cases the Supreme Court reviewed in Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which declared segregation unconstitutional.
However, due to the rage over a young Black girl’s insistence on rejecting substandard conditions, her safety was compromised. She was sent to live with family in Montgomery, Alabama, after members of the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in her yard. After high school where she attended Spelman College and finished her education at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Johns married Rev. William Powell, and raised five children while working as a librarian in the Philadelphia Public School system. She died in 1991.
The removal of Lee’s statue follows a string of actions directed toward Confederate imagery and symbols, signaling a time in America where separate was not equal, but the law. And the wages of activating against the status quo, could result in death.
Johns’ contributions to American history and the course of education, particularly for Black Americans, deserves recognition and honor in the United States Capitol.
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