Additional Sources: Articles and Interviews

Articles from the Farmville Herald (reprinted courtesy of the Farmville Herald.)

These articles show the progression of the Farmville Herald's attitide about the strike and its aftermath.The initial reaction was to regard the students as immature, and lacking discipline. That attitude became defensive when a lawsuit was filed challenging the Virginia's Constitution. More recently, the newspaper has led the town in commemorating Barbara's far-reaching vision, and the student's courage.

April 25, 1951, Editorial, "Ill Advised Move"

May 1, 1951, "R.R. Moton Strike Enters 2nd Week"

May 4, 1951: Letter to the Editor, School Days or 'Happy Days.'

May 8, 1951: "Students' Attorneys File Petition To End Segregation in Schools"

May 8, 1951: Editorial, "A Problem Becomes an Issue."

May 15, 1951: Editorial, "The Smoke Clears"

May 25, 1951: "Attorneys Start Federal Suit To End School Segregation; 20-Year Progress Reviewed."

September 1, 2000, "'And We Would Live Happily Ever After' The Dream Behind the History.'"

March 2, 2001, "Living with the Legacies: Johns Family Members Reflect On History"

Interviews

These interviews were conducted many decades after the strike. As you will see, eyewitnesses occasionally recall events differently. Bob Smith, author of They Closed Their Schools (originally published in 1965), and Richard Kluger, author of Simple Justice (1975) interviewed many of the students, including Barbara herself, closer to the actual events. The results of those interviews are in their books. Anyone piecing together the facts should keep in mind that statements made closer to the event generally are more likely to be accurate than statements made 50 or 60 years later, and versions which change dramatically over time should be viewed accordingly.

Interview with Joan Johns Cobb, Barbara's sister. If you click on the link, you can see a photo of Barbara with her math teacher, one of the few surviving photos of Barbara as a teenager. That particular photograph is owned by John Stokes.

Interview with Oliver Hill, the NAACP lawyer who took the phone call from Barbara Johns. He describes how Barbara called him and aked for his help.

Another Interview with Oliver Hill. Mr. Hill was also interviewed by Julian Bond for the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Interview with Edwilda Allen Isaac, one of the student leaders of the 1951 Moton High School strike was interviewed by Professor George H. Gillam for a documentary about Virginia’s history since the Civil War. Other students, in other interviews, recalled events differently. For example, other students (John Watson, Joan Johns Cobb, Claude Cobbs) recall that only Barbara was on the stage when the students were summoned to the auditorium the day of the strike. In addition, according to others, the students' trip to the courthouse occurred later in the week, and only 20 or so students went.

Interview with John Stokes, one of the student leaders of the 1951 Moton High School Strike, interviewed by the Virginia Commonwealth University and recorded in their digital library.

Interview with Vera Jones Allen, Edwilda's mother, was also interviewed by Professor Gillam for the same series.  Mrs. Allen worked for the school system at the time of the strike.

List of the Plaintiffs in Davis v. Prince Edward County, all of whom later became plantiffs in the Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education.

FROM THE FARMVILLE HERALD:

Ill Advised Move
Farmville Herald, April 25, 1951
,

         For three days all members of the student body of Robert R. Moton High School in Farmville have absented themselves fro the classrooms. The teachers have been present to teach, the school buses have operated -- these facilities and services have been supplied at considerable cost by the county. The purpose of the apparently student-inspired mass hookie is to hasten the construction of a new school building, which is needed and is under consideration by the county school board. Temporary classrooms were built two years ago to meet a pressing need, until plans and arrangements could be made adequately to meet the needs. Students at R.R. Moton High School stretched their “strike” into its second week Monday.

          The ill advised student action is to be regretted. It will not and should not influenc the present plan from the authorities. To use it is the sign of hte times. It might be the product of the present system of education, it might result from teh lack of discipline so obvious in teh home, the church, the school, and in everyday philosophy of living. It is not characteristic of the people of Southside Virginia and certainly not in keeping with the principles taught by the great educator Robert R. Moton, a native of this area, for whom the school is named. It is an ill-advised tactic of immature youth and should be so considered.

 

R.R. Moton Strike Enters 2nd Week
Farmville Herald, May 1, 1951
,

          Students at R.R. Moton High School stretched their “strike” into its second week Monday. Classrooms, usually bearing the hum of 450 students at school, were deserted save for teachers who continued to maintain regular hours.

          A student body meeting was held in the auditorium of the Beaulah A.M.E. Church Monday morning, but the session was closed to newsmen.

          A Herald reporter was informed that the Richmond law firm of Hill, Martin, and Robinson was now spokesman for th students, and any statement of student intention must come through that source.

          Meanwhile, Superintendent T. J. McIlwaine said Monday morning the school board’s position was unchanged. The strike was viewed as  a breach of discipline that must be handled by those charged with discipline at the school – the principal and faculty.

          The superintendent had said earlier that there is no basis now in student claims of unsuitable facilties sufficient to warrant action by the school board, except in its usual manner.

          The board is negotiating for a site for a new high school and plans for its erections have been incorporated into the school board’s projected plans for school development here.

 

Letter to the Editor
School Days or ‘Happy Days’
Farmville Herald, May 4, 1951
,

Editor, Farmville Herald,

Vague rumors have been reaching me to the effect that there has been some kind of a strike at one of our public institutions. Living out in the country as I do, I am somewhat out of touch with that may be going on or coming off at our county seat.

This strike, rumors of which have reached me, what kind of strike is it? Is it supposed to be a sit down strike, a stand up strike, or a walk out strike? Could spring fever have anything to do with it?

Even my little girl has been asking me questions about strikes and what they are for. I told her that usually it means that working people become dissatisfied with working conditions or the pay they receive and they strike or stop work to get more pay or shorter working hours, then there are other cases where people go on strikes because they read and hear so much about all kinds of strikes and are influenced by outside agitators.

Another question asked me is, “Do strikers help themselves when they stage a strike?”

From reading about many kinds of strikes, I have learned that in some instances, the strikers do more harm to themselves than to anyone else.

I do not profess to know anything about this strike business and therefore I shall diligently peruse each issue of your most informative paper to keep me informed and bring me up to date as to enable me to give more or less intelligent answers to the questions put to me by the younger generation.

If this strike idea keeps spreading, the next thing we know our kids may be going on strike and refusing to wash their faces or comb their hair unless we provide them with more spending money or bubble gum.

‘School days, school days, Good old golden rule days. With reading and writin’ and ‘rithmetic, Taught to the tune of a hickory stick.’ Remember that song? I am told the latest version of this song goes something like this. School days, school days, Without any golden rule days; We study or play or do as we like; When things don’t suit us, we go on strike. The hickory stick tune is discarded in this new version. I understand the general idea of the song was suggested by “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

 

Students’ Attorneys File Petition to End Segregation in Schools
R.R. Moton Pupils End 2-Week Strike
Farmville Herald, May 8, 1951

The 450 students of R.R. Moton High School ended the two-week “strike” and returned to classes Monday morning. The school is functioning normally according to the principal, M.B. Jones.

The return of the students was announced last Thursday night at a public meeting of school patrons, held under the auspices of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the First Baptist Church. The attorneys, Oliver W. Hill and Spottswood Robinson III. of Richmond announced that a petition asking the end of racial segregation in Prince Edward County School shad been forwarded to the Prince Edward School Board.

During the meeting, Barbara Johns, a student, pointed up some of the inadequacies at the High school, declaring that students went from normal room temperatures in the main building to “overheated and very cold” rooms in the three temporary additions. She also cited the lack of a cafeteria and gym and stated there were but four drinking fountains, two of which were out of order.

Other comparisons to indicate needed facilities at R.R. Moton High school were made.

Receives Petition

The petition on behalf of 33 children and their parents, all citizens of Prince Edward County, drawn by the Richmond law firm of Hill, Martin, and Robinson, their counsel, was received at the Prince Edward School Board on Tuesday, May 8.

In effect, the petition demanded that county school authorities put an end to segregation in Prince Edward’s public secondary schools, on grounds that there is no other way to stop the discrimination which the petitions charge now exists.

Receives Summary

The carefully-drawn petition, in eight pages of legalistic phraseology, as summarized by the h Associated Press, said among other things that:

(1) By enforcing section140 of Virginia’s Constitution which says simply that (white and colored children shall not be taught in the same school) and section 12-221 of the Virginia Code (which restates and amplifies the constitutional provisions.

(2) The separate secondary school facilities provide for Negroes are inferior in plant, equipment, curricula and other opportunities and advantage, to those provided for whites.

(3) So long as the board enforces the constitutional and code sections cited, it will be impossible for Negroes to obtain education equivalent to that possible for white persons.

(4) Equality of facilities and opportunities can be reached only if no distinction is made on basis of race or color.

Asks Board’s Action

The petition therefore demanded that Prince Edward board ‘cease and desist’ from enforcement of Virginia laws which preclude the admission of Negroes to any public school; that the board primarily stop making any distinction on the basis of race or color in considering applications for admission to the schools; and that the board stop executing, enforcing, or pursuing any policy, practice, custom or usage that discriminates against Negroes.

33 Petitioners

The petition was filed in behalf of 33 petitioners “and in behalf of all other persons, citizens, and residents of the County of Prince Edward, Virginia similarly situated and affected.”

[The article listed all the plaintiffs in the case]

 

Editorial
"A Problem Becomes an Issue"
Farmville Herald, May 8, 1951

If the student strike at R.R. Moton High school was a local effort to hasten the construction of a new school building, it can no longer be so considered. If the students initiated the movement they are no longer in command of the situation. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has assumed control and, according to the announced purpose, an effort will be made to discontinue racial segregation in secondary schools in Virginia. Instead of a local effort to improve school conditions, the movement has become a movement to eliminate racial segregation from the Virginia Constitution.

We regret that Prince Edward was chosen for this test case on the law of segregation. One, who has seen the great progress of public education during the past twenty years, can but feel that such a movement will greatly retard the future development of education. The progress of the South, of Virginia, of any section or community where two races must live together, depends upon the principles of segregation. Early in the Reconstruction Period it was seen as a necessity by leaders of both races. Readjustments have been accomplished and progress has been made through an understanding between the white people and the colored people of the South. Until this incident, the leaders of the races in Prince Edward County have worked together for the benefit of each. Local problems have been discussed and resolved by co-operation and understanding.

It is particularly unfortunate that the NAACP has chosen this time in the history of the United States to seek a change in the age old principles by which the South has made such marked progress. Facing a World War in which every person will be called upon to do a share in its prosecution, any program which threatens to divide the communities is to be regretted. If ever a united front, a happy people, a determined effort to preserve our way of life was needed, it is today.

We can not believe that the majority of either the Prince Edward white or Negro citizens advocate non-segregation or would be happier thereby. Our community has been precipitated into a State controversy. It will be to our advantage to use the best judgment of which we are capable to the end that the future development of our community will not be retarded. Calm considerations, temperate words and a charitable understanding must be used to meet a situation, which we believe is not of the making of the majority of our citizens nor has the support of the majority of either race.

The problem becomes an issue. The movement which purportedly was begun locally to focus attention on the need for a new school building for Prince Edward Negroes, has become a sate issue on segregation. The challenge must be accepted by the School Board and by the elected officials of the State of Virginia, who are sworn to preserve the state Constitution.

It may be well that this question of segregation be settled before further plans are made to build a new high school for Negroes. It would be folly to proceed to burden the county with a huge debt for a high school, which might be unsuitable for use in a future system. At any rate, the Constitution of the State of Virginia has been challenged. This must be resolved before any further plans for new school buildings can be made intelligently in Virginia.

 

Editorial
"The Smoke Clears"
Farmville Herald, May 15, 1951

Evaluating situations in the heat of fast moving developments sometimes leads people far afield. There is a possibility that this has been the case in the recent school movement begun by the students of R.R. Moton High School. The students conducted an ill-advised walkout. There was nothing that could be done until this movement had burned itself out and the students returned to classes. The developments during those fast moving days carried far afield. It is reasonable to believe that this student movement was an effort to focus attention on the need for better school facilities. This purpose was completely overshadowed by the more extensive issue of non-segregation in schools, when the NAACP entered the program. It is our considered judgment that the people of Prince Edward county, both white and Negro, do not favor a non-segregated school system. If this is true, then the matter before us is still a local one and can be resolved by the people of the county.

Let’s look at the record.

At the moment, a petition for adequate school facilities is before the school board, either schools for Negroes sufficient to meet their needs, or a petition for non-segregated school system. If our considered judgment is correct, namely that there is no zeal for non-segregation, then the question reverts to that local goal. We prefer to believe that this is the case and in the absence of further NAACP legal action, we take the position that the situation remains local until such further action is taken. We also restate our opinion that the people of Prince Edward seek to resolve the problems on a local plane. Certainly, community-wise, this would be the most logical course.

Therefore, the School Board should continue its effort to carry out the plans which have been in the making for several months. Negotiations are nearing completion for a site, just off Route 15, on the Zion Church road, consisting of a minimum of 20 acres. Upon completion of this step, plans for a school to fill the needs must be drawn and adapted to this location. This having been done, an estimate of the cost of construction can be made. Having ascertained the amount of funds needed, the methods of acquiring the money will be the next step.

There are two possibilities. First, to make a loan from the State Literary Fund. Second to hold a referendum to authorize the issuance of county bonds. It is possible that either or both of the methods may be used depending upon the financial advantages to the county.

The school needs are not altogether shared by the Negro population. The white schools of the county have needs too. These should likewise be surveyed by the School Board and an effort made to meet them under the same general school construction program.

In the meantime, a good instructional program can be continued as best as it is possible under the existing conditions. Attention should be given to alleviate any unbearable conditions at any of the schools, as a temporary measure. Our people should recognize the extensive problem which faces the school bard, and approach it with a spirit of co-operation and understanding which has always characterized the community betterment movements in this county.

All Prince Edward citizens, of both races, can approach and obtain all needed facilities if they resolve to use their best efforts and judgments to that end. Any other approach would retard progress and create misunderstandings which would be difficult to resolve ever.

There is little to be gained in restating past events. They do not concern the people so much as do future developments of a great county and a great state. After all is said and done, there is no substitute for local government and resolving local problems at the local level. At least it is worth an effort to do so.


"Attorneys Start Federal Suit to End School Segregation; 20-Year Progress Reviewed"
Farmville Herald, May 25, 1951

     That the Prince Edward county school board has long recognized the need of improved facilities for Negro public schools here and has striven conscientiously to that end, can be seen from a new survey of the school board’s action since the construction of the Mary E. Branch elementary school in 1928-1929.

     A review of such action was prepared this week by Superintendent T.J. McIlwaine.

     When the two-story present elementary school was built in 1927-28 it housed both the high school and grade classes. When it became obvious that more space was needed, and facilities improved in 1938-1939, the school board authorized the construction of R.R. Moton High School.

     The high school building cost $37,800. The acquisition of the site, on the southern perimeter of the town, cost an additional $5,000. Equipment valued at $6,000 was purchased and placed at the school.

Model School

     At that time. The R.R. Moton was considered a model school for what was then an enrollment of 185 students. The building served adequately until near the end of World War II, when there was a sharp rise in the enrollment.

     At that time, the board was sensitive to the need of larger facilities, but the War had brought rising prices and a scarcity of materials.  A survey of Negro school needs was ordered by the school board and consultations held with the board of supervisors.

     These conferences recognized that immediate steps should be taken, and the board authorized construction of temporary classrooms and an agricultural shop with the understanding that such construction was to be restricted to five years’ use.

     The construction was made from plans furnished by the State Department of Education, and the work done with the Department’s approval.

Architect Retained

     Following that effort the school board retained the services of an architect to advise as to a new Negro high school, and a search for sites began, by a school board committee, with the help of Negro patrons. That site has now been selected and negotiations for purchase begun.

     Meanwhile, a year ago, Governor Battle announced that Virginia counties should share in a 75,000,000 million dollar aid-to-counties fund distribution. Funds would become available to counties after they had submitted a plan of school improvement projected over the next four years, showing the county’s complete needs for public schools.

     The Prince Edward board submitted its projected plan last January, with top priority given to a new Negro high school at the cost of $800,000. Also included were three consolidated Negro elementary schools, at a total cost of $1,125,000 and renovation at Mary E. Branch school of $150,000.

     For white schools, the plan included $425,000 for improvements at Farmville High School, and $100,000 for improvements at Prospect.

Battle Funds

     Under the Battle plan, about $275,000 is available for Prince Edward county. This the school board has ear-marked for the Negro high school. An additional $180,000 may accrue to the county later.

     Throughout the period covered in the report, the move to equalize facilities has been in progress. Today, 50 percent of the county funds are used in operation of Negro schools; salaries are equalized. In 1938-1939 there was one Negro school bus which carried 18 pupils. Today there are nine buses, carrying 583 pupils.

     The curriculum at R.R. Moton has been improved in line with that at Farmville High School. A commercial department was added, home economics and music put in, and the vocational agriculture shop built and equipped.

     Following the school board’s rejection of the petition asking an end to racial segregation in Prince Edward county schools Tuesday, Negro attorneys Wednesday filed a similar plea in Federal District Court at Richmond.

     The new petition seeks to remove racial barriers in public education in the county.

     The petition, filed by Spottswood W. Robinson, III, of the Richmond firm of Hill, Martin, and Robinson, attacks the validity of Virginia’s Constitution and statutory law which prohibits Negroes from attending white schools.

     In the action, the attorneys who have been retained by Prince Edward country groups since the April 23 strike by R.R. Moton high school students, ask a judgment restraining the Prince Edward county school board from enforcing provisions of the State Constitution in the county’s public schools.

Board’s Answer

     In turning the petition down, the board, through its chairman Maurice R. Large, said it would continue to enforce the Constitution and Statutes of Virginia, both of which require that Negro and white pupils be taught in separate schools.

     “We construe the requests and demands of the petition prepared and submitted by you to be that the school board of Prince Edward County, Virginia, adopt and pursue a policy in violation of Section 140 of the Constitution of Virginia, and Section 22-221, of the Code of Virginia,” Large said, in a letter addressed to Robinson. “You are hereby advised that the Constitutional and statutory provisions of Virginia relating to the teaching of white and colored children in the same school will be observed, in so far as they relate to the schools under the jurisdiction of this board.”

     The constitutional and statutory provisions referred to both stipulate that “white and colored” pupils “shall not be taught in the same schools.”

Retain Law Firm

     In making public its rejection of the petition, the school board also announced that it had retained a Richmond law firm, Hupton, Williams, Anderson, Gay & Moore, to represent and advise it.

     The case will be heard by a special three- man court as required in all suits seeking to enjoin the enforcement of State laws on the grounds of unconstitutionality. Since a question of constitutionality is involved, the decision, should an appearance be made, will go directly to the United states Supreme Court.

     The court will be appointed by John J. Parker, chief justice of the Fourth Circuit.

     Similar Case

A case similar to the Farmville case will come to trial Monday in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of South Carolina, Charleston Division, at Charleston.

 

"'And we would live happily ever after' The Dream Behind The History"
Farmville Herald, September 1, 2000
, by Ken Woodley             

          The words are in Barbara Johns Powell's own hand. Firm and clearly penned. She tells the story of why and how she decided to lead her fellow students at R.R. Moton High School into history on April 23, 1951.

     “I was just so overcome with emotion from reading those papers. In front of my whole family, I just burst into tears,” Mrs. Cob said Wednesday afternoon

 “Right then and there I decided something had to be done about this inequality --- but I still didn’t know what.  All day my mind and thoughts were whirling, and as I lay in my bed that night.  I prayed for help—that night, whether in a dream or whether I was awake, but I felt I was awake, a plan began to formulate in my mind.  A plan I felt was divinely inspired. . .”

      Her words.

      Her story.

      Finally.

     They are Barbara Johns Powell’s recollections written for a possible movie about her life, a film never made after her health deteriorated and she died in 1991. Barbara Johns Powell’s sister, Joan Johns Cobb, read the words for the first time this week following a family reunion.

     “I was just so overcome with emotion from reading those papers. In front of my whole family, I just burst into tears,” Mrs. Cob said Wednesday afternoon.

     If the modern civil rights movement was born in Prince Edward that spring day when African American students went on strike for better facilities, then Barbara Johns (her maiden name) was the physician who delivered that movement.

     She picked a few key students from several grades, including John Stokes, Carrie Stokes, Edwilda Allen, John Watson, Carl Allen, Sam Williams, Hodges Brown and Mautter West, who worked with courage and conviction to help grow the plan, but the seed which was planted was hers.

     Four and a half years before Rose Parks refused to sit in the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, a 16-year old Barbara Johns and her fellow students led a peaceful demonstration which anticipated the non-violent nature of Dr. Martin Luther King’s strategy and pointed the nation toward the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to end segregation in public schools.

     American knows Rosa Parks. Her life is celebrated in schools and textbooks across the nation. The story of Barbara Johns Powell and her classmates, however, remains largely untold. Unknown. For many years, even family members, even her children, did not know what she had done as a junior in high school with the strength and support of her friends, to help reshape American society.

     The historical marker at the intersection of Griffin Boulevard and S. Main Street would not exist without Barbara Johns Powell. The former R.R. Moton High School would not be a National Historical Landmark had it not been for her vision, courage, and faith. There would be no R.R. Moton Museum if Barbara Johns Powell had accepted, rather than challenged, the status quo 49 years ago. And there would be nothing of those she called “the crème de la crème” at Moton High School had refused to band together with her.

     But that young woman, the human being behind the history made on April 23, 1951, is largely unknown, a name only , to many people, even in Prince Edward County. Ms. Powell, her family says, rarely spoke of the history she and her classmates forged and her sister knows of no published newspaper or magazine interviews by Ms. Powell regarding the genesis of the historic student strike.

      In fact, beyond the quotes in one book – Bob Smith’s 1965 The Closed Their Schools – the handwritten notes by Barbara, copied by her daughter Terry Powell Harrison and shared this week with family members, may be the only other printed record of her story. This time, for the first time, told by her and published now with the permission of her family. The 22 pages begin with descriptions of family life in Cullen, then discuss her favorite teacher at Moton High School, Inez Davenport, before she begins describing what led to the decision to strike:

      “I felt I could share my innermost thoughts with her and she wouldn't consider them ridiculous.

            This was how I happened to mention how unhappy I was with the school facilities and inadequacies to her.  I told her it wasn't fair that we had such poor facility, equipment, etc when our white counterparts enjoyed science laboratories, a huge facility -- separate gym dept. etc.  I warmed to my subject and looked to her for some answer to my frustration -- and she paused for a few moments and said, "Why don't you do something about it?"  I was surprised at her answer but it didn't occur to me to ask what she meant.  I just slowly turned away as I felt she had dismissed me with that reply.

            What one could do about such a situation, I had no idea.  But I spent many days in my favorite hangout in the woods on my favorite stump contemplating it all.  I sat by the creek while Sadie Red drank and I thought about it.  My imagination would run rampant and I would dream that some mighty man of great wealth built us a new school building or that our parents got together and surprised us with this grand new building and we had a big celebration -- and I even imagined that a great storm came through and blew down the main buildings and splattered the shacks to splinters - and out of this wreckage rose this magnificent building and all the students were joyous and even the teachers cried. 

            But then reality would set in and I would be forced to acknowledge that nothing magical was going to produce a new school.

            And there were times I just prayed "Got please grant us a new school"  "Please let us have a warm place to stay where we won't have to keep our coats on all day to stay warm.  God please help us. We are your children too.

            This type of thinking went on for months sometimes as I chopped the wood sometimes as I fed the pigs -- it would crop up in my mind because we felt we were not treated like any other students.  Their classes were not held in the auditorium, they were not cold, they didn't have to leave on e it would crop up in my mind because we felt we were not treated like any other students.  Their classes were not held in the auditorium.  They were not cold, they didn’t have to leave one building and transfer to another. Their buses weren’t overcrowded.  Their teacher/bus driver didn’t’ have to make the fire before he could start classes.

            One morning I was so busy rushing my brothers and sister down the hill to school that I forgot my lunch and had to rush back up the hill to retrieve it.  In the meantime, the bus arrived, picked them up, and left me standing there by the roadside waiting to thumb a ride with whomever came by.

            About an hour later, I was still waiting, when the white school bus drives by – half empty on its way to Farmville High School.  It would have to pass by my school to get to that school and I couldn’t ride with them.

            Right then and there I decided something had to be done about this inequality --- but I still didn’t know what.  All day my mind and thoughts were whirling, and as I lay in my bed that night.  I prayed for help—that night, whether in a dream or whether I was awake, but I felt I was awake, a plan began to formulate in my mind.  A plan I felt was divinely inspired because I hadn’t been able to think of anything until then.  That plan was to assemble together the student council members whom I considered the crème de la crème of the senior class.  They were smart and thinkers.  I knew them and trusted them and I was a part of them – from this we would formulate plans to go on a 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 – and we would live happily ever after.  Fully confident that all of this would transpire, I arose early the next morning, rushed to get everyone out and could hardly wait to get to school to call this meeting.

            I was self-sufficient and independent because my mother was not around to rely upon or to consult. My father was too busy plowing and planting and harvesting to have time for any fantasy of mine – and he would have considered it foolish – never agreed with it – but he wouldn’t have stopped me. I was permitted free reign in my thinking and actions – as he put it I was too stubborn, to determined to have my way anyway, so why hassle ourselves.

            I didn’t consult my uncle because he wasn’t around.  And really, I didn’t feel any need to consult anyone, anyway. It had been given to me, all I had to do was do it.

            She did. And the rest is truly history.

            During a speech commemorating the 48th anniversary of the student strike, Virginia attorney General Mark Earley stood on the same stage from which Barbara Johns Powell had rallied students on April 23, 1951.

            “In a very real way, and in a way that is not an exaggeration, the civil rights movement was born on a spring day in Prince Edward County at Moton High School,” the attorney general said.

            That birth was not something which Barbara Johns Powell spoke about very much.

            One of her daughters, Terry Powell Harrison, told The Herald she was 28 years old before she finally learned the full story and significance of what her mother had done as a teenager in Prince Edward. And it was only by listening to her mother being interviewed by a man from California who was interested in pursuing a movie about her mother’s life.

            “During that interview was the first time we heard the real, true story about it. Before that, she never mentioned it. Never spoke about it. We had no clue how significant it was. We knew she had to live with her uncle (away from Prince Edward afterward because of family concerns for her safety). But she didn’t brag about it. She didn’t really share that, which we thought was incredible.” Ms. Harrison said during a phone interview from her home in New Jersey on Wednesday.

            “It was amazing to us she never shared that, that she kept it so quiet. It felt like, ‘Mom! This is important . . . I guess I still don’t understand the silence.”

            In certain respects, however,, Terry Powell Harrison does understand her mother’s reluctance to raise her children on the student strike of April 23, 1951.

            “In a way, it wasn’t surprising because my mom had always been a strong person, always been very selfless, always thought of everybody else’s interest and what was for the common good,” Ms. Harrison said.

            “Write everything down.”

            The notes which Ms. Harrison copied for family members were made by Barbara Johns Powell at the request of the man who’d interviewed her for the potential film.

            After the interview, Ms. Harrison recalls, “He asked her to write something for him, write everything down for him. She started (the notes) during that time. But shortly after that she became

sicker and sicker and she couldn’t really finish the writing.

            So the notes weren’t a startling discovery for her children, though they were for Barbara Johns Powell’s sister, Joan, and other family members.

            “We knew it existed. We knew she had done that (the notes),” Ms. Harrison said. But they were tucked away.

            “We didn’t really think it would be of any significance other than among our family. I hung on to the papers since I cleared out her effects,” Ms. Harrison explained. This summer, however, she decided to copy and disseminate the notes among family members.

            “We thought it would only be of interest to us,” she repeated.

            Describing her emotions on reading her sister’s words for the first time, Joan Johns Cobb said, “Oh, God, it feels . . I cried. I cried so hard when I read the whole thing. It feels wonderful, but it also feels sad. I have a host of emotions. She took me back. She took me back to everything and it was very emotional for me. I have to admit, I cried through the whole thing and when I got to that part (about planning the strike) it was like, “Oh my God, I don’t believe it. She has written down exactly what happened.”

            And answered questions.

            “People have asked me so many questions about this that I really did not know because I did not know that she had planned this (the strike). She kept all that from me,” said her sister. “It’s been a revelation to me. That part she told me is the part . . where she asked Miss Davenport. She did tell me that. I knew she was very fond of Miss Davenport. . .

            “ . . . Everybody was asking. I’m her sister but I was in the dark. She wouldn’t tell me. I asked her afterwards why wouldn’t she tell me. She said, “I was afraid you would tell somebody. We could not afford to let anyone know what we were doing.” She said, “I was afraid you might slip and tell somebody.”

            There wasn’t anyone more surprised to see Barbara Johns take the stage at R.R. Moton High School on April 23, 1951 than her sister Joan. “When she got up on the stage at the assembly and started to speak I was so shocked at what she was saying that I squirmed down in my seat like this. I was afraid and shocked and everything and couldn’t imagine her doing this,” Ms. Cobb said Wednesday.

            “She took a stand when it was a very dangerous thing to do. It was very dangerous. During that time anything that black did to stand up for anything, you could get killed for it, so we were all very afraid. I remember my parents being nervous about it and that’s why they decided to send Barbara to live with our Uncle Vernon because they were afraid for the family and for Barbara,” she said.

            The uncle, Vernon Johns, is an historical pioneering figure in the civil rights movement, portrayed on screen and in one-man performances by James Earl Jones. The Rev. Johns preceded Dr. King at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and was a John the Baptist figure to Dr. King’s role as a civil rights messiah. Some whites, in fact, believed Rev. Johns pushed his niece into the strike. Joan Johns Cobb is glad her sister’s writing shows Barbara Johns explaining how the idea came to her.

            “A lot of people have asked me, “Did Uncle Vernon have something to do with it? And what does she say in there? It was not Uncle Vernon,” Ms. Cobb said.

Realizing the Significance

            It took some time for Ms. Cobb to view Barbara and Vernon Johns beyond the kinship of her sister and her uncle. “You know, when you’re growing up like that, that’s your sister, just like Uncle Vernon was just my uncle . . At the time he was my uncle,” she said.” It was later I realized the things that he did to make an impact on the world, just like Barbara, the things she did . . . I didn’t know at the time but I realize later that both of them had made a significant impact on the turn of events.”

            Years before Rosa Parks.

            “And Barbara was only 16. It’s mind-boggling when you think about it now. But she was not the type to be afraid. I don’t understand it but whatever she felt like she should do in terms of anything, she just didn’t seem to be afraid,” said Ms. Cobb, recalling a pre-strike example that occurred in the family-run store in Darlington Heights.

            “It was frequented by blacks and whites and when white men would come in there they would call my father ‘Uncle Robert.’ They would never address him by his name (Robert Melvin Johns). And Barbara asked them one day when I was in there, ‘Why are you calling him Uncle Robert? He’s not your uncle.’ Those were the types of things she would say. And those things could have gotten her in a lot of trouble because you just didn’t say that. You ignored a lot of things that white people said to you that you may not have liked. But she was always the type to challenge everything. She challenged them on why they would call our father Uncle Robert. He had a name.”

            In addition to her sister’s innate inner strength, Ms. Cobb also believes the handwritten note reflect a sense of divine guidance in coming to the decision to strike against the inferior segregated school facilities.

            “She believed it was divinely inspired. Now that surprised me too. She has all that down. Even though I knew how her religious convictions were and how she was a Christian type woman, I was still shocked to read she thought that was divinely inspired,” said Ms. Cobb. “So you have to believe that. Otherwise, I don’t know how she thought she could even do anything like that unless she felt God would be with her.

            “That’s the only way you could think about it because at that time anything that black people did like that might cause their death. Seemingly, her lack of fear was because it had to be divinely inspired,” Ms. Cobb said.

            The fears of repercussions were not imaginary. Edwilda Allen (now Edwilda Allen Isaac) has spoken of spending her adolescence without her mother. Vera Allen, whose teaching contract was not renewed in Prince Edward following the student strike. Her mother would find work in North Carolina, far from the family’s Farmville home.

            Barbara Johns Powell, her sister said, “was a very religious and very courageous type of person. She thoroughly believed God will take care of things in time . . .”

            Terry Powell Harrison recalls her mother going to a family reunion later in her life, attended by some of her former Moton classmates. Ms. Harrison saw her mother’s concern for unexpected strike repercussions. She saw her mother’s reaction after learning that “some of the families had to go to other states for work. That part of it, she didn’t realize and had a hard time handling . . .she thought it would be good for everybody.”

The Perfect American Story

            George Harrison Gilliam, who has produced an hour-long documentary for Central Virginia Public Television that will prominently feature the April 23, 1951 student action (Sept. 15. 9-10 p.m.), calls the Moton message “the perfect American story, the most patriotic, most progressive story that I have heard in a long time.”

            Gilliam reflected, “Here were these kids . . . who engaged in a very sophisticated form of non-violent protest”: before Rosa Parks and before Dr. King.

            Rosa Parks, he said, “had been selected. She had been trained. She had a lot of support in place for her. The whole ‘move to the back of the bus’ was staged. It was well done but (Rosa Parks) had done that after King started talking about the importance of non-violence.:

            Barbara Johns and her classmates were acting on their own, and head of their time.

            The civil rights movement would have occurred eventually, without the student strike in Farmville,” Gilliam said, but not in the same way. “A lot of things were going to happen regardless of what the kids in Farmville did, but the fact is they did it,” he said, “and they were a catalyst. If it hadn’t been for them in 1951, it might have been 1958 before someone did something. I think it’s a great story.”

Gentle Strength

            Barbara Johns Powell was born on March 6, 1935 in New York City, the oldest of five children born to Robert Melvin and Violet Spencer Johns. Her early years were spent in Washington, D.C.* before the family moved back to Prince Edward, where she attended Mary E. Branch Elementary and Robert R. Moton High School.

          Following her graduation from high school, she attended Spelman College in Atlanta and Antioch College in Ohio,* receiving her Masters Degree in Library Science from Drexel University. Barbara Johns Powell was a librarian in the Philadelphia school system for 24 years. She married the Rev. W.H.R. Powell. The couple had four daughters and one son.

          On the cover of the program given to those attending her October 1, 1991 funeral at Triumph Baptist Church in Darlington Heights was an 11-word quote:

          “Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as strength.”

 

"Living with the Legacies: Johns Family Members Reflect On History"
Farmville Herald, March 2, 2001
, by Ken Woodley    

Hampden-Sydney – Standing at the lectern Wednesday night, Rev. William Powell looked at those gathered to hear his words and hoped two things would happen:

            The 80-year old wanted his audience to leave Hampden-Sydney College at the end of his remarks with a “sense of the presence of the eternal God, our Father.”

            And, he would tell them, “I’m hoping all of us will nourish the dreams that we have.”

            Those, Rev. Powell believes, are two of the legacies of the late Barbara Johns who, as a 16-year old student at R.R. Moton High School in Farmville, led a student strike on April 23, 1951 for better school facilities for black students.

            That student action four years before Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a bus in Alabama has been called the birth of the civil rights movement. It led to the county’s inclusion in the Brown V. Board case and the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision against segregated public schools.

            Rev. Powell’s reflections on Barbara Johns came from firsthand experience. He is the husband of the late civil rights heroine who lived with her husband in Philadelphia and taught for 24 years in the city’s public school system. She died in 1991.

            The program “Remembering Barbara Johns” was sponsored by H-SC and was attended by several members of the Johns family, including the sister of Ms. Powell, Joan Johns Cobb, who spoke of the pain she and other black students from that era still feel as the community and nation wrestled with the end of segregation.

A Quiet Heroine

            It was fitting that Rev. Powell and Barbara Johns married between an old year and a new one – pledging their vows on New Year’s Eve as 1953 became 1954 – because Ms. Johns helped usher the nation from a policy of racial segregation to one of integration in public education.

            But Barbara Johns Powell did not speak to her husband and children about her role in the civil rights movement, family members say. It was not until her handwritten notes were found that many were given a glimpse into what had gone through her mind as she contemplated how to respond to separate and unequal school facilities in Prince Edward.

            “The amazing thing about Barbara is that she never discussed this and we sometimes wonder whether she knew really what she had done and what she had accomplished,” Rev. Powell said. “But her own children were unaware of her own involvement… She was a very private person. She was not out to seek glory. All she wanted was a school that was equal to the whites. That’s all. And I think the life she lived after that proves that she was a selfless individual.”

            That life was centered on being the best mother and wife and school teacher she possibly could. The history-launching events of 1951 were not the topic of family discussions as she raised her children and supported her husband’s ministry in Philadelphia.

            “The strange thing about this was this writing lay at home on top of the bureau from about 1990 until 1999 when I left Philadelphia,” said Rev. Powell, who has retired to the Cullen area. “My daughter discovered it, had it (copied) and gave every member of the family a copy of it. Isn’t that strange that that length of time would transpire and that nobody would even recognize that it was there and all of a sudden it comes to light?”

            The entire transcript of the notes related to her decision to lead a student strike was published in The Herald last September, a fact Rev. Powell made a point of acknowledging Tuesday night.

            “Now you explain to me how a 16-year old would develop that kind of spirit, that kind of attitude, and all she was concerned about was that everything would be made equal,” Rev. Powell said. “And that is the heritage she leaves us.”

            One of faith in God and the conviction to follow inspired dreams.

            As his eyes scanned the audience, Rev. Powell said, “there are some young people here this evening and I’m hoping that all of us will nourish the dreams we have and then stick to them. Don’t let anybody drive you away from that dream, but hold on to it because you will find the power and the strength to make that dream come true.”

            And that power and that strength can be God-given, he believes.

            “There is no play, there is no movie, there is no drama that does not have His direction, And we may think that we are undirected in this world and in this life but I’ve got news for you – we are directed and nothing happens, nothing occurs without the knowledge and inspection of God.”

            It was after praying in her bed one night in 1951 that the idea of a student strike dawned on Barbara Johns. “The plan was given to her (by God).” Rev. Powell said. “She implemented it right away.”

            It was her dream, she wrote, that once people saw the students marching down the street, once people heard of their plight, that they would immediately see to it that a new school was established.

            “See how naive she was?” asked Rev. Powell. “She had no idea of the furor that it would create and, in fact, stayed in creation until 1964 (when county schools re-opened after closing in 1959). It was contention all along the way. That was not her plan. Her plan was hoping they would get a new school building because of the inequalities of the times.”

            As a teenager, Barbara Johns had “faith in the white people,” Rev. Powell said. “She felt they would join with (students) and build a new school, and unfortunately all of this ugliness came out.

            “Yes,” he continued,” it is hurtful … but we have to go on.”

The Pain Is Very Real

            The pain is still very real, Joan Johns Cobb told those attending the program in the Parents and Friends Lounge at H-SC. “It’s still very painful today to talk about it. It’s very painful and I think that’s why you don’t get some of the original students who were involved in the strike, who helped Barbara with it, you can’t get them to come back and talk about it because it is still very painful,” said Ms. Cobb, who now lives in New Jersey.

            “I just can’t tell you how painful it is. I imagine every student who went through it is still suffering inside,” she said. “In order to understand how deep that hurt is you would have to have experienced it … We can’t almost put it into words how deeply we were hurt and still, to this day, it hurts. I just can’t describe the depth of the hurt.”

            A member of the audience had asked if any former students would be willing to share their feelings and along with Ms. Cobb, Willie Shepperson – in school at R.R. Moton High School on the day of the strike – did so. “Prince Edward has never given me any remorse,” he said. “Nobody ever said we’re sorry for what we did. Never said it.”

            Both he and Ms. Cobb asked that the truth be told about what happened. “Help us tell the truth,” he said, when someone asked if there was anything anyone could do to help ease the pain.

No Enmity

            Though “indeed saddened” by the county’s school-closing response to Brown v. Board, Barbara Johns Powell harbored no enmity towards whites, her husband added.

            “No, not at all. She never spoke disparagingly of any white person,” Rev. Powell told two reporters following the program.

            As a teenager in Prince Edward, Rev. Powell had told his audience, Barbara Johns “never expected” the backlash that occurred. “It caught her unawares, and it’s just unfortunate.”

            The he added, “You know, growing up, growth sometimes is painful and we just don’t like to talk about it.”

            As the discussion continued during the question and answer period following his prepared remarks, Rev. Powell said, “one thing I have determined in life and that is you have to leave the hurts behind. Life goes on and you are faced with different challenges each and every day and you’ll always find somebody in society that doesn’t like you. If you stand on your head, you will not please them. So what do you do? Do you just lull around and fail to achieve to what you can accomplish because this individual doesn’t like you? No, indeed. You just use what tools you have to make the best out of your existence.”

            Moments later, Ms. Cobb stood again and said, “My dear brother-in-law, you did not grow up here in Virginia so you do not realize what we are trying to say as far as the depth of the pain that we are suffering. And I think we have moved on. However, it’s not gone … It is still deep … Don’t try to pretend it never happened because that’s the feeling we get to this very day, that nothing every happened here like that and that’s why we can’t get over the pain.”

            Following the program, Rev. Powell told two journalists that he “fell in love with Virginia by going to school in Richmond” and so understood “some of the hurt they’re talking about.”

            He believes the anti-integration actions of some whites were motivated by fear of economic repercussions.

            “The white people of that time they were afraid of their jobs and when you have a whole unit that believes the Negro is this, that, or the other, you go along with it or you will be ostracized,” he told reporters, “So I can understand the plight of many whites.”

            To follow Barbara Johns and the civil rights movement, or not.

            To the crowd at H-SC Tuesday night, Rev. Powell said, “We need more Barbara Johns. There are many areas in our society … Those of you who have dreams, dream the right way. And dream always in the benefit of your fellow man. You have got to be selfless in this.”

            Quoting a verse from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – “Why, if the soul can fling the dust aside and naked on the air of heaven rise” – Rev. Powell ended the evening saying, “If we can separate ourselves from the physical man and allow that spirit to live and exercise, what a wonderful life we’d have. Barbara died happy. She was thankful … I cherish the years God granted us together.”

            H-SC English professor George Bagby, who opened and closed Tuesday night’s program, told the crowd that “I do think the spirit of God works through a session like this. We would all be a lot better off if we had more of these sessions, sit down, look at each other and say what’s on our minds. These are painful things, not just for the people who speak them, but for those of us who hear them.”

            Were it not for her handwritten notes, composed late in life for a filmmaker who’s project was left unfulfilled because of Ms. Powell’s death, her words about the moment and movement in American history she helped shape would have remained silent.

            Her actions would have spoken for themselves.

            Rev. Powell told those listening Tuesday night that it takes “a giant to stand up and say, ‘This is wrong.’ And we don’t have too many giants.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Additional Sources: Articles and Interviews

Articles from the Farmville Herald (reprinted courtesy of the Farmville Herald.)

These articles show the progression of the Farmville Herald's attitude about the strike and its aftermath. The initial reaction was to regard the students as immature, and lacking discipline. The attitude became defensive when a lawsuit was filed challenging the Virginia's Constitution. More recently, the newspaper has led the town in commemorating Barbara's far-reaching vision, and the student's courage.

April 25, 1951, Editorial, "Ill Advised Move"

May 1, 1951, "R.R. Moton Strike Enters 2nd Week"

May 4, 1951: "Letter to the Editor, School Days or 'Happy Days.'"

May 8, 1951: "Students' Attorneys File Petition To End Segregation in Schools"

May 8, 1951: Editorial, "A Problem Becomes an Issue."

May 15, 1951: Editorial, "The Smoke Clears"

May 25, 1951: "Attorneys Start Federal Suit To End School Segregation; 20-Year Progress Reviewed."

September 1, 2000, "'And We Would Live Happily Ever After' The Dream Behind the History.'"

March 2, 2001, "Living with the Legacies: Johns Family Members Reflect On History"

Interviews

These interviews were conducted many decades after the strike. As you will see, eyewitnesses occasionally recall events differently. Bob Smith, author of They Closed Their Schools (originally published in 1965), and Richard Kluger, author of Simple Justice (1975) interviewed many of the students, including Barbara herself, closer to the actual events. The results of those interviews are in their books. Anyone piecing together the facts should keep in mind that statements made closer to the event generally are more likely to be accurate than statements made 50 or 60 years later, and versions which change dramatically over time should be viewed accordingly.

Interview with Joan Johns Cobb, Barbara's sister. If you click on the link, you can see a photo of Barbara with her math teacher, one of the few surviving photos of Barbara as a teenager. That particular photograph is owned by John Stokes.

Interview with Oliver Hill, the NAACP lawyer who took the phone call from Barbara Johns. He describes how Barbara called him and asked for his help.

Another Interview with Oliver Hill. Mr. Hill was also interviewed by Julian Bond for the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Interview with Edwilda Allen Isaac, one of the student leaders of the 1951 Moton High School strike was interviewed by Professor George H. Gillam for a documentary about Virginia’s history since the Civil War. Other students, in other interviews, recalled events differently. For example, other students (John Watson, Joan Johns Cobb, Claude Cobb) recall that only Barbara was on the stage when the students were summoned to the auditorium the day of the strike. In addition, according to others, the students' trip to the courthouse occurred later in the week, and only 20 or so students went.

Interview with John Stokes, one of the student leaders of the 1951 Moton High School Strike, interviewed by the Virginia Commonwealth University and recorded in their digital library.

Interview with Vera Jones Allen, Edwilda's mother, was also interviewed by Professor Gillam for the same series.  Mrs. Allen worked for the school system at the time of the strike.

List of the Plaintiffs in Davis v. Prince Edward County, all of whom later became plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education.

FROM THE FARMVILLE HERALD:

Ill Advised Move
Farmville Herald, April 25, 1951
,

         For three days all members of the student body of Robert R. Moton High School in Farmville have absented themselves from the classrooms. The teachers have been present to teach, the school buses have operated -- these facilities and services have been supplied at considerable cost by the county. The purpose of the apparently student-inspired mass hookie is to hasten the construction of a new school building, which is needed and is under consideration by the county school board. Temporary classrooms were built two years ago to meet a pressing need, until plans and arrangements could be made adequately to meet the needs. Students at R.R. Moton High School stretched their “strike” into its second week Monday.

          The ill advised student action is to be regretted. It will not and should not influence the present plan from the authorities. To us it is the sign of the times. It might be the product of the present system of education, it might result from the lack of discipline so obvious in the home, the church, the school, and in everyday philosophy of living. It is not characteristic of the people of Southside Virginia and certainly not in keeping with the principles taught by the great educator Robert R. Moton, a native of this area, for whom the school is named. It is an ill-advised tactic of immature youth and should be so considered.

 

R.R. Moton Strike Enters 2nd Week
Farmville Herald, May 1, 1951
,

          Students at R.R. Moton High School stretched their “strike” into its second week Monday. Classrooms, usually bearing the hum of 450 students at school, were deserted save for teachers who continued to maintain regular hours.

          A student body meeting was held in the auditorium of the Beaulah A.M.E. Church Monday morning, but the session was closed to newsmen.

          A Herald reporter was informed that the Richmond law firm of Hill, Martin, and Robinson was now spokesman for the students, and any statement of student intention must come through that source.

          Meanwhile, Superintendent T. J. McIlwaine said Monday morning the school board’s position was unchanged. The strike was viewed as  a breach of discipline that must be handled by those charged with discipline at the school – the principal and faculty.

          The superintendent had said earlier that there is no basis now in student claims of unsuitable facilities sufficient to warrant action by the school board, except in its usual manner.

          The board is negotiating for a site for a new high school and plans for its erections have been incorporated into the school board’s projected plans for school development here.

 

Letter to the Editor
School Days or ‘Happy Days’
Farmville Herald, May 4, 1951
,

Editor, Farmville Herald,

Vague rumors have been reaching me to the effect that there has been some kind of a strike at one of our public institutions. Living out in the country as I do, I am somewhat out of touch with that may be going on or coming off at our county seat.

This strike, rumors of which have reached me, what kind of strike is it? Is it supposed to be a sit down strike, a stand up strike, or a walk out strike? Could spring fever have anything to do with it?

Even my little girl has been asking me questions about strikes and what they are for. I told her that usually it means that working people become dissatisfied with working conditions or the pay they receive and they strike or stop work to get more pay or shorter working hours, then there are other cases where people go on strikes because they read and hear so much about all kinds of strikes and are influenced by outside agitators.

Another question asked me is, “Do strikers help themselves when they stage a strike?”

From reading about many kinds of strikes, I have learned that in some instances, the strikers do more harm to themselves than to anyone else.

I do not profess to know anything about this strike business and therefore I shall diligently peruse each issue of your most informative paper to keep me informed and bring me up to date as to enable me to give more or less intelligent answers to the questions put to me by the younger generation.

If this strike idea keeps spreading, the next thing we know our kids may be going on strike and refusing to wash their faces or comb their hair unless we provide them with more spending money or bubble gum.

‘School days, school days, Good old golden rule days. With reading and writin’ and ‘rithmetic, Taught to the tune of a hickory stick.’ Remember that song? I am told the latest version of this song goes something like this. School days, school days, Without any golden rule days; We study or play or do as we like; When things don’t suit us, we go on strike. The hickory stick tune is discarded in this new version. I understand the general idea of the song was suggested by “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

 

Students’ Attorneys File Petition to End Segregation in Schools
R.R. Moton Pupils End 2-Week Strike
Farmville Herald, May 8, 1951

The 450 students of R.R. Moton High School ended the two-week “strike” and returned to classes Monday morning. The school is functioning normally according to the principal, M.B. Jones.

The return of the students was announced last Thursday night at a public meeting of school patrons, held under the auspices of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the First Baptist Church. The attorneys, Oliver W. Hill and Spottswood Robinson III. of Richmond announced that a petition asking the end of racial segregation in Prince Edward County School shad been forwarded to the Prince Edward School Board.

During the meeting, Barbara Johns, a student, pointed up some of the inadequacies at the High school, declaring that students went from normal room temperatures in the main building to “overheated and very cold” rooms in the three temporary additions. She also cited the lack of a cafeteria and gym and stated there were but four drinking fountains, two of which were out of order.

Other comparisons to indicate needed facilities at R.R. Moton High school were made.

Receives Petition

The petition on behalf of 33 children and their parents, all citizens of Prince Edward County, drawn by the Richmond law firm of Hill, Martin, and Robinson, their counsel, was received at the Prince Edward School Board on Tuesday, May 8.

In effect, the petition demanded that county school authorities put an end to segregation in Prince Edward’s public secondary schools, on grounds that there is no other way to stop the discrimination which the petitions charge now exists.

Receives Summary

The carefully-drawn petition, in eight pages of legalistic phraseology, as summarized by the h Associated Press, said among other things that:

(1) By enforcing section140 of Virginia’s Constitution which says simply that (white and colored children shall not be taught in the same school) and section 12-221 of the Virginia Code (which restates and amplifies the constitutional provisions.

(2) The separate secondary school facilities provide for Negroes are inferior in plant, equipment, curricula and other opportunities and advantage, to those provided for whites.

(3) So long as the board enforces the constitutional and code sections cited, it will be impossible for Negroes to obtain education equivalent to that possible for white persons.

(4) Equality of facilities and opportunities can be reached only if no distinction is made on basis of race or color.

Asks Board’s Action

The petition therefore demanded that Prince Edward board ‘cease and desist’ from enforcement of Virginia laws which preclude the admission of Negroes to any public school; that the board primarily stop making any distinction on the basis of race or color in considering applications for admission to the schools; and that the board stop executing, enforcing, or pursuing any policy, practice, custom or usage that discriminates against Negroes.

33 Petitioners

The petition was filed in behalf of 33 petitioners “and in behalf of all other persons, citizens, and residents of the County of Prince Edward, Virginia similarly situated and affected.”

[The article listed all the plaintiffs in the case]

 

Editorial
"A Problem Becomes an Issue"
Farmville Herald, May 8, 1951

If the student strike at R.R. Moton High school was a local effort to hasten the construction of a new school building, it can no longer be so considered. If the students initiated the movement they are no longer in command of the situation. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has assumed control and, according to the announced purpose, an effort will be made to discontinue racial segregation in secondary schools in Virginia. Instead of a local effort to improve school conditions, the movement has become a movement to eliminate racial segregation from the Virginia Constitution.

We regret that Prince Edward was chosen for this test case on the law of segregation. One, who has seen the great progress of public education during the past twenty years, can but feel that such a movement will greatly retard the future development of education. The progress of the South, of Virginia, of any section or community where two races must live together, depends upon the principles of segregation. Early in the Reconstruction Period it was seen as a necessity by leaders of both races. Readjustments have been accomplished and progress has been made through an understanding between the white people and the colored people of the South. Until this incident, the leaders of the races in Prince Edward County have worked together for the benefit of each. Local problems have been discussed and resolved by co-operation and understanding.

It is particularly unfortunate that the NAACP has chosen this time in the history of the United States to seek a change in the age old principles by which the South has made such marked progress. Facing a World War in which every person will be called upon to do a share in its prosecution, any program which threatens to divide the communities is to be regretted. If ever a united front, a happy people, a determined effort to preserve our way of life was needed, it is today.

We can not believe that the majority of either the Prince Edward white or Negro citizens advocate non-segregation or would be happier thereby. Our community has been precipitated into a State controversy. It will be to our advantage to use the best judgment of which we are capable to the end that the future development of our community will not be retarded. Calm considerations, temperate words and a charitable understanding must be used to meet a situation, which we believe is not of the making of the majority of our citizens nor has the support of the majority of either race.

The problem becomes an issue. The movement which purportedly was begun locally to focus attention on the need for a new school building for Prince Edward Negroes, has become a sate issue on segregation. The challenge must be accepted by the School Board and by the elected officials of the State of Virginia, who are sworn to preserve the state Constitution.

It may be well that this question of segregation be settled before further plans are made to build a new high school for Negroes. It would be folly to proceed to burden the county with a huge debt for a high school, which might be unsuitable for use in a future system. At any rate, the Constitution of the State of Virginia has been challenged. This must be resolved before any further plans for new school buildings can be made intelligently in Virginia.

 

Editorial
"The Smoke Clears"
Farmville Herald, May 15, 1951

Evaluating situations in the heat of fast moving developments sometimes leads people far afield. There is a possibility that this has been the case in the recent school movement begun by the students of R.R. Moton High School. The students conducted an ill-advised walkout. There was nothing that could be done until this movement had burned itself out and the students returned to classes. The developments during those fast moving days carried far afield. It is reasonable to believe that this student movement was an effort to focus attention on the need for better school facilities. This purpose was completely overshadowed by the more extensive issue of non-segregation in schools, when the NAACP entered the program. It is our considered judgment that the people of Prince Edward county, both white and Negro, do not favor a non-segregated school system. If this is true, then the matter before us is still a local one and can be resolved by the people of the county.

Let’s look at the record.

At the moment, a petition for adequate school facilities is before the school board, either schools for Negroes sufficient to meet their needs, or a petition for non-segregated school system. If our considered judgment is correct, namely that there is no zeal for non-segregation, then the question reverts to that local goal. We prefer to believe that this is the case and in the absence of further NAACP legal action, we take the position that the situation remains local until such further action is taken. We also restate our opinion that the people of Prince Edward seek to resolve the problems on a local plane. Certainly, community-wise, this would be the most logical course.

Therefore, the School Board should continue its effort to carry out the plans which have been in the making for several months. Negotiations are nearing completion for a site, just off Route 15, on the Zion Church road, consisting of a minimum of 20 acres. Upon completion of this step, plans for a school to fill the needs must be drawn and adapted to this location. This having been done, an estimate of the cost of construction can be made. Having ascertained the amount of funds needed, the methods of acquiring the money will be the next step.

There are two possibilities. First, to make a loan from the State Literary Fund. Second to hold a referendum to authorize the issuance of county bonds. It is possible that either or both of the methods may be used depending upon the financial advantages to the county.

The school needs are not altogether shared by the Negro population. The white schools of the county have needs too. These should likewise be surveyed by the School Board and an effort made to meet them under the same general school construction program.

In the meantime, a good instructional program can be continued as best as it is possible under the existing conditions. Attention should be given to alleviate any unbearable conditions at any of the schools, as a temporary measure. Our people should recognize the extensive problem which faces the school bard, and approach it with a spirit of co-operation and understanding which has always characterized the community betterment movements in this county.

All Prince Edward citizens, of both races, can approach and obtain all needed facilities if they resolve to use their best efforts and judgments to that end. Any other approach would retard progress and create misunderstandings which would be difficult to resolve ever.

There is little to be gained in restating past events. They do not concern the people so much as do future developments of a great county and a great state. After all is said and done, there is no substitute for local government and resolving local problems at the local level. At least it is worth an effort to do so.


"Attorneys Start Federal Suit to End School Segregation; 20-Year Progress Reviewed"
Farmville Herald, May 25, 1951

     That the Prince Edward county school board has long recognized the need of improved facilities for Negro public schools here and has striven conscientiously to that end, can be seen from a new survey of the school board’s action since the construction of the Mary E. Branch elementary school in 1928-1929.

     A review of such action was prepared this week by Superintendent T.J. McIlwaine.

     When the two-story present elementary school was built in 1927-28 it housed both the high school and grade classes. When it became obvious that more space was needed, and facilities improved in 1938-1939, the school board authorized the construction of R.R. Moton High School.

     The high school building cost $37,800. The acquisition of the site, on the southern perimeter of the town, cost an additional $5,000. Equipment valued at $6,000 was purchased and placed at the school.

Model School

     At that time. The R.R. Moton was considered a model school for what was then an enrollment of 185 students. The building served adequately until near the end of World War II, when there was a sharp rise in the enrollment.

     At that time, the board was sensitive to the need of larger facilities, but the War had brought rising prices and a scarcity of materials.  A survey of Negro school needs was ordered by the school board and consultations held with the board of supervisors.

     These conferences recognized that immediate steps should be taken, and the board authorized construction of temporary classrooms and an agricultural shop with the understanding that such construction was to be restricted to five years’ use.

     The construction was made from plans furnished by the State Department of Education, and the work done with the Department’s approval.

Architect Retained

     Following that effort the school board retained the services of an architect to advise as to a new Negro high school, and a search for sites began, by a school board committee, with the help of Negro patrons. That site has now been selected and negotiations for purchase begun.

     Meanwhile, a year ago, Governor Battle announced that Virginia counties should share in a 75,000,000 million dollar aid-to-counties fund distribution. Funds would become available to counties after they had submitted a plan of school improvement projected over the next four years, showing the county’s complete needs for public schools.

     The Prince Edward board submitted its projected plan last January, with top priority given to a new Negro high school at the cost of $800,000. Also included were three consolidated Negro elementary schools, at a total cost of $1,125,000 and renovation at Mary E. Branch school of $150,000.

     For white schools, the plan included $425,000 for improvements at Farmville High School, and $100,000 for improvements at Prospect.

Battle Funds

     Under the Battle plan, about $275,000 is available for Prince Edward county. This the school board has ear-marked for the Negro high school. An additional $180,000 may accrue to the county later.

     Throughout the period covered in the report, the move to equalize facilities has been in progress. Today, 50 percent of the county funds are used in operation of Negro schools; salaries are equalized. In 1938-1939 there was one Negro school bus which carried 18 pupils. Today there are nine buses, carrying 583 pupils.

     The curriculum at R.R. Moton has been improved in line with that at Farmville High School. A commercial department was added, home economics and music put in, and the vocational agriculture shop built and equipped.

     Following the school board’s rejection of the petition asking an end to racial segregation in Prince Edward county schools Tuesday, Negro attorneys Wednesday filed a similar plea in Federal District Court at Richmond.

     The new petition seeks to remove racial barriers in public education in the county.

     The petition, filed by Spottswood W. Robinson, III, of the Richmond firm of Hill, Martin, and Robinson, attacks the validity of Virginia’s Constitution and statutory law which prohibits Negroes from attending white schools.

     In the action, the attorneys who have been retained by Prince Edward country groups since the April 23 strike by R.R. Moton high school students, ask a judgment restraining the Prince Edward county school board from enforcing provisions of the State Constitution in the county’s public schools.

Board’s Answer

     In turning the petition down, the board, through its chairman Maurice R. Large, said it would continue to enforce the Constitution and Statutes of Virginia, both of which require that Negro and white pupils be taught in separate schools.

     “We construe the requests and demands of the petition prepared and submitted by you to be that the school board of Prince Edward County, Virginia, adopt and pursue a policy in violation of Section 140 of the Constitution of Virginia, and Section 22-221, of the Code of Virginia,” Large said, in a letter addressed to Robinson. “You are hereby advised that the Constitutional and statutory provisions of Virginia relating to the teaching of white and colored children in the same school will be observed, in so far as they relate to the schools under the jurisdiction of this board.”

     The constitutional and statutory provisions referred to both stipulate that “white and colored” pupils “shall not be taught in the same schools.”

Retain Law Firm

     In making public its rejection of the petition, the school board also announced that it had retained a Richmond law firm, Hupton, Williams, Anderson, Gay & Moore, to represent and advise it.

     The case will be heard by a special three- man court as required in all suits seeking to enjoin the enforcement of State laws on the grounds of unconstitutionality. Since a question of constitutionality is involved, the decision, should an appearance be made, will go directly to the United states Supreme Court.

     The court will be appointed by John J. Parker, chief justice of the Fourth Circuit.

     Similar Case

A case similar to the Farmville case will come to trial Monday in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of South Carolina, Charleston Division, at Charleston.

 

"'And we would live happily ever after' The Dream Behind The History"
Farmville Herald, September 1, 2000
, by Ken Woodley             

          The words are in Barbara Johns Powell's own hand. Firm and clearly penned. She tells the story of why and how she decided to lead her fellow students at R.R. Moton High School into history on April 23, 1951.

     “I was just so overcome with emotion from reading those papers. In front of my whole family, I just burst into tears,” Mrs. Cob said Wednesday afternoon

 “Right then and there I decided something had to be done about this inequality --- but I still didn’t know what.  All day my mind and thoughts were whirling, and as I lay in my bed that night.  I prayed for help—that night, whether in a dream or whether I was awake, but I felt I was awake, a plan began to formulate in my mind.  A plan I felt was divinely inspired. . .”

      Her words.

      Her story.

      Finally.

     They are Barbara Johns Powell’s recollections written for a possible movie about her life, a film never made after her health deteriorated and she died in 1991. Barbara Johns Powell’s sister, Joan Johns Cobb, read the words for the first time this week following a family reunion.

     “I was just so overcome with emotion from reading those papers. In front of my whole family, I just burst into tears,” Mrs. Cob said Wednesday afternoon.

     If the modern civil rights movement was born in Prince Edward that spring day when African American students went on strike for better facilities, then Barbara Johns (her maiden name) was the physician who delivered that movement.

     She picked a few key students from several grades, including John Stokes, Carrie Stokes, Edwilda Allen, John Watson, Carl Allen, Sam Williams, Hodges Brown and Mautter West, who worked with courage and conviction to help grow the plan, but the seed which was planted was hers.

     Four and a half years before Rose Parks refused to sit in the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, a 16-year old Barbara Johns and her fellow students led a peaceful demonstration which anticipated the non-violent nature of Dr. Martin Luther King’s strategy and pointed the nation toward the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to end segregation in public schools.

     American knows Rosa Parks. Her life is celebrated in schools and textbooks across the nation. The story of Barbara Johns Powell and her classmates, however, remains largely untold. Unknown. For many years, even family members, even her children, did not know what she had done as a junior in high school with the strength and support of her friends, to help reshape American society.

     The historical marker at the intersection of Griffin Boulevard and S. Main Street would not exist without Barbara Johns Powell. The former R.R. Moton High School would not be a National Historical Landmark had it not been for her vision, courage, and faith. There would be no R.R. Moton Museum if Barbara Johns Powell had accepted, rather than challenged, the status quo 49 years ago. And there would be nothing of those she called “the crème de la crème” at Moton High School had refused to band together with her.

     But that young woman, the human being behind the history made on April 23, 1951, is largely unknown, a name only , to many people, even in Prince Edward County. Ms. Powell, her family says, rarely spoke of the history she and her classmates forged and her sister knows of no published newspaper or magazine interviews by Ms. Powell regarding the genesis of the historic student strike.

      In fact, beyond the quotes in one book – Bob Smith’s 1965 The Closed Their Schools – the handwritten notes by Barbara, copied by her daughter Terry Powell Harrison and shared this week with family members, may be the only other printed record of her story. This time, for the first time, told by her and published now with the permission of her family. The 22 pages begin with descriptions of family life in Cullen, then discuss her favorite teacher at Moton High School, Inez Davenport, before she begins describing what led to the decision to strike:

      “I felt I could share my innermost thoughts with her and she wouldn't consider them ridiculous.

            This was how I happened to mention how unhappy I was with the school facilities and inadequacies to her.  I told her it wasn't fair that we had such poor facility, equipment, etc when our white counterparts enjoyed science laboratories, a huge facility -- separate gym dept. etc.  I warmed to my subject and looked to her for some answer to my frustration -- and she paused for a few moments and said, "Why don't you do something about it?"  I was surprised at her answer but it didn't occur to me to ask what she meant.  I just slowly turned away as I felt she had dismissed me with that reply.

            What one could do about such a situation, I had no idea.  But I spent many days in my favorite hangout in the woods on my favorite stump contemplating it all.  I sat by the creek while Sadie Red drank and I thought about it.  My imagination would run rampant and I would dream that some mighty man of great wealth built us a new school building or that our parents got together and surprised us with this grand new building and we had a big celebration -- and I even imagined that a great storm came through and blew down the main buildings and splattered the shacks to splinters - and out of this wreckage rose this magnificent building and all the students were joyous and even the teachers cried. 

            But then reality would set in and I would be forced to acknowledge that nothing magical was going to produce a new school.

            And there were times I just prayed "Got please grant us a new school"  "Please let us have a warm place to stay where we won't have to keep our coats on all day to stay warm.  God please help us. We are your children too.

            This type of thinking went on for months sometimes as I chopped the wood sometimes as I fed the pigs -- it would crop up in my mind because we felt we were not treated like any other students.  Their classes were not held in the auditorium, they were not cold, they didn't have to leave on e it would crop up in my mind because we felt we were not treated like any other students.  Their classes were not held in the auditorium.  They were not cold, they didn’t have to leave one building and transfer to another. Their buses weren’t overcrowded.  Their teacher/bus driver didn’t’ have to make the fire before he could start classes.

            One morning I was so busy rushing my brothers and sister down the hill to school that I forgot my lunch and had to rush back up the hill to retrieve it.  In the meantime, the bus arrived, picked them up, and left me standing there by the roadside waiting to thumb a ride with whomever came by.

            About an hour later, I was still waiting, when the white school bus drives by – half empty on its way to Farmville High School.  It would have to pass by my school to get to that school and I couldn’t ride with them.

            Right then and there I decided something had to be done about this inequality --- but I still didn’t know what.  All day my mind and thoughts were whirling, and as I lay in my bed that night.  I prayed for help—that night, whether in a dream or whether I was awake, but I felt I was awake, a plan began to formulate in my mind.  A plan I felt was divinely inspired because I hadn’t been able to think of anything until then.  That plan was to assemble together the student council members whom I considered the crème de la crème of the senior class.  They were smart and thinkers.  I knew them and trusted them and I was a part of them – from this we would formulate plans to go on a 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 – and we would live happily ever after.  Fully confident that all of this would transpire, I arose early the next morning, rushed to get everyone out and could hardly wait to get to school to call this meeting.

            I was self-sufficient and independent because my mother was not around to rely upon or to consult. My father was too busy plowing and planting and harvesting to have time for any fantasy of mine – and he would have considered it foolish – never agreed with it – but he wouldn’t have stopped me. I was permitted free reign in my thinking and actions – as he put it I was too stubborn, to determined to have my way anyway, so why hassle ourselves.

            I didn’t consult my uncle because he wasn’t around.  And really, I didn’t feel any need to consult anyone, anyway. It had been given to me, all I had to do was do it.

            She did. And the rest is truly history.

            During a speech commemorating the 48th anniversary of the student strike, Virginia attorney General Mark Earley stood on the same stage from which Barbara Johns Powell had rallied students on April 23, 1951.

            “In a very real way, and in a way that is not an exaggeration, the civil rights movement was born on a spring day in Prince Edward County at Moton High School,” the attorney general said.

            That birth was not something which Barbara Johns Powell spoke about very much.

            One of her daughters, Terry Powell Harrison, told The Herald she was 28 years old before she finally learned the full story and significance of what her mother had done as a teenager in Prince Edward. And it was only by listening to her mother being interviewed by a man from California who was interested in pursuing a movie about her mother’s life.

            “During that interview was the first time we heard the real, true story about it. Before that, she never mentioned it. Never spoke about it. We had no clue how significant it was. We knew she had to live with her uncle (away from Prince Edward afterward because of family concerns for her safety). But she didn’t brag about it. She didn’t really share that, which we thought was incredible.” Ms. Harrison said during a phone interview from her home in New Jersey on Wednesday.

            “It was amazing to us she never shared that, that she kept it so quiet. It felt like, ‘Mom! This is important . . . I guess I still don’t understand the silence.”

            In certain respects, however,, Terry Powell Harrison does understand her mother’s reluctance to raise her children on the student strike of April 23, 1951.

            “In a way, it wasn’t surprising because my mom had always been a strong person, always been very selfless, always thought of everybody else’s interest and what was for the common good,” Ms. Harrison said.

            “Write everything down.”

            The notes which Ms. Harrison copied for family members were made by Barbara Johns Powell at the request of the man who’d interviewed her for the potential film.

            After the interview, Ms. Harrison recalls, “He asked her to write something for him, write everything down for him. She started (the notes) during that time. But shortly after that she became sicker and sicker and she couldn’t really finish the writing.

            So the notes weren’t a startling discovery for her children, though they were for Barbara Johns Powell’s sister, Joan, and other family members.

            “We knew it existed. We knew she had done that (the notes),” Ms. Harrison said. But they were tucked away.

            “We didn’t really think it would be of any significance other than among our family. I hung on to the papers since I cleared out her effects,” Ms. Harrison explained. This summer, however, she decided to copy and disseminate the notes among family members.

            “We thought it would only be of interest to us,” she repeated.

            Describing her emotions on reading her sister’s words for the first time, Joan Johns Cobb said, “Oh, God, it feels . . I cried. I cried so hard when I read the whole thing. It feels wonderful, but it also feels sad. I have a host of emotions. She took me back. She took me back to everything and it was very emotional for me. I have to admit, I cried through the whole thing and when I got to that part (about planning the strike) it was like, “Oh my God, I don’t believe it. She has written down exactly what happened.”

            And answered questions.

            “People have asked me so many questions about this that I really did not know because I did not know that she had planned this (the strike). She kept all that from me,” said her sister. “It’s been a revelation to me. That part she told me is the part . . where she asked Miss Davenport. She did tell me that. I knew she was very fond of Miss Davenport. . .

            “ . . . Everybody was asking. I’m her sister but I was in the dark. She wouldn’t tell me. I asked her afterwards why wouldn’t she tell me. She said, “I was afraid you would tell somebody. We could not afford to let anyone know what we were doing.” She said, “I was afraid you might slip and tell somebody.”

            There wasn’t anyone more surprised to see Barbara Johns take the stage at R.R. Moton High School on April 23, 1951 than her sister Joan. “When she got up on the stage at the assembly and started to speak I was so shocked at what she was saying that I squirmed down in my seat like this. I was afraid and shocked and everything and couldn’t imagine her doing this,” Ms. Cobb said Wednesday.

            “She took a stand when it was a very dangerous thing to do. It was very dangerous. During that time anything that black did to stand up for anything, you could get killed for it, so we were all very afraid. I remember my parents being nervous about it and that’s why they decided to send Barbara to live with our Uncle Vernon because they were afraid for the family and for Barbara,” she said.

            The uncle, Vernon Johns, is an historical pioneering figure in the civil rights movement, portrayed on screen and in one-man performances by James Earl Jones. The Rev. Johns preceded Dr. King at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and was a John the Baptist figure to Dr. King’s role as a civil rights messiah. Some whites, in fact, believed Rev. Johns pushed his niece into the strike. Joan Johns Cobb is glad her sister’s writing shows Barbara Johns explaining how the idea came to her.

            “A lot of people have asked me, “Did Uncle Vernon have something to do with it? And what does she say in there? It was not Uncle Vernon,” Ms. Cobb said.

Realizing the Significance

            It took some time for Ms. Cobb to view Barbara and Vernon Johns beyond the kinship of her sister and her uncle. “You know, when you’re growing up like that, that’s your sister, just like Uncle Vernon was just my uncle . . At the time he was my uncle,” she said.” It was later I realized the things that he did to make an impact on the world, just like Barbara, the things she did . . . I didn’t know at the time but I realize later that both of them had made a significant impact on the turn of events.”

            Years before Rosa Parks.

            “And Barbara was only 16. It’s mind-boggling when you think about it now. But she was not the type to be afraid. I don’t understand it but whatever she felt like she should do in terms of anything, she just didn’t seem to be afraid,” said Ms. Cobb, recalling a pre-strike example that occurred in the family-run store in Darlington Heights.

            “It was frequented by blacks and whites and when white men would come in there they would call my father ‘Uncle Robert.’ They would never address him by his name (Robert Melvin Johns). And Barbara asked them one day when I was in there, ‘Why are you calling him Uncle Robert? He’s not your uncle.’ Those were the types of things she would say. And those things could have gotten her in a lot of trouble because you just didn’t say that. You ignored a lot of things that white people said to you that you may not have liked. But she was always the type to challenge everything. She challenged them on why they would call our father Uncle Robert. He had a name.”

            In addition to her sister’s innate inner strength, Ms. Cobb also believes the handwritten note reflect a sense of divine guidance in coming to the decision to strike against the inferior segregated school facilities.

            “She believed it was divinely inspired. Now that surprised me too. She has all that down. Even though I knew how her religious convictions were and how she was a Christian type woman, I was still shocked to read she thought that was divinely inspired,” said Ms. Cobb. “So you have to believe that. Otherwise, I don’t know how she thought she could even do anything like that unless she felt God would be with her.

            “That’s the only way you could think about it because at that time anything that black people did like that might cause their death. Seemingly, her lack of fear was because it had to be divinely inspired,” Ms. Cobb said.

            The fears of repercussions were not imaginary. Edwilda Allen (now Edwilda Allen Isaac) has spoken of spending her adolescence without her mother. Vera Allen, whose teaching contract was not renewed in Prince Edward following the student strike. Her mother would find work in North Carolina, far from the family’s Farmville home.

            Barbara Johns Powell, her sister said, “was a very religious and very courageous type of person. She thoroughly believed God will take care of things in time . . .”

            Terry Powell Harrison recalls her mother going to a family reunion later in her life, attended by some of her former Moton classmates. Ms. Harrison saw her mother’s concern for unexpected strike repercussions. She saw her mother’s reaction after learning that “some of the families had to go to other states for work. That part of it, she didn’t realize and had a hard time handling . . .she thought it would be good for everybody.”

The Perfect American Story

            George Harrison Gilliam, who has produced an hour-long documentary for Central Virginia Public Television that will prominently feature the April 23, 1951 student action (Sept. 15. 9-10 p.m.), calls the Moton message “the perfect American story, the most patriotic, most progressive story that I have heard in a long time.”

            Gilliam reflected, “Here were these kids . . . who engaged in a very sophisticated form of non-violent protest”: before Rosa Parks and before Dr. King.

            Rosa Parks, he said, “had been selected. She had been trained. She had a lot of support in place for her. The whole ‘move to the back of the bus’ was staged. It was well done but (Rosa Parks) had done that after King started talking about the importance of non-violence.:

            Barbara Johns and her classmates were acting on their own, and head of their time.

            The civil rights movement would have occurred eventually, without the student strike in Farmville,” Gilliam said, but not in the same way. “A lot of things were going to happen regardless of what the kids in Farmville did, but the fact is they did it,” he said, “and they were a catalyst. If it hadn’t been for them in 1951, it might have been 1958 before someone did something. I think it’s a great story.”

Gentle Strength

            Barbara Johns Powell was born on March 6, 1935 in New York City, the oldest of five children born to Robert Melvin and Violet Spencer Johns. Her early years were spent in Washington, D.C.* before the family moved back to Prince Edward, where she attended Mary E. Branch Elementary and Robert R. Moton High School.

          Following her graduation from high school, she attended Spelman College in Atlanta and Antioch College in Ohio,* receiving her Masters Degree in Library Science from Drexel University. Barbara Johns Powell was a librarian in the Philadelphia school system for 24 years. She married the Rev. W.H.R. Powell. The couple had four daughters and one son.

          On the cover of the program given to those attending her October 1, 1991 funeral at Triumph Baptist Church in Darlington Heights was an 11-word quote:

          “Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as strength.”

 

"Living with the Legacies: Johns Family Members Reflect On History"
Farmville Herald, March 2, 2001
, by Ken Woodley    

Hampden-Sydney – Standing at the lectern Wednesday night, Rev. William Powell looked at those gathered to hear his words and hoped two things would happen:

            The 80-year old wanted his audience to leave Hampden-Sydney College at the end of his remarks with a “sense of the presence of the eternal God, our Father.”

            And, he would tell them, “I’m hoping all of us will nourish the dreams that we have.”

            Those, Rev. Powell believes, are two of the legacies of the late Barbara Johns who, as a 16-year old student at R.R. Moton High School in Farmville, led a student strike on April 23, 1951 for better school facilities for black students.

            That student action four years before Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a bus in Alabama has been called the birth of the civil rights movement. It led to the county’s inclusion in the Brown V. Board case and the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision against segregated public schools.

            Rev. Powell’s reflections on Barbara Johns came from firsthand experience. He is the husband of the late civil rights heroine who lived with her husband in Philadelphia and taught for 24 years in the city’s public school system. She died in 1991.

            The program “Remembering Barbara Johns” was sponsored by H-SC and was attended by several members of the Johns family, including the sister of Ms. Powell, Joan Johns Cobb, who spoke of the pain she and other black students from that era still feel as the community and nation wrestled with the end of segregation.

A Quiet Heroine

            It was fitting that Rev. Powell and Barbara Johns married between an old year and a new one – pledging their vows on New Year’s Eve as 1953 became 1954 – because Ms. Johns helped usher the nation from a policy of racial segregation to one of integration in public education.

            But Barbara Johns Powell did not speak to her husband and children about her role in the civil rights movement, family members say. It was not until her handwritten notes were found that many were given a glimpse into what had gone through her mind as she contemplated how to respond to separate and unequal school facilities in Prince Edward.

            “The amazing thing about Barbara is that she never discussed this and we sometimes wonder whether she knew really what she had done and what she had accomplished,” Rev. Powell said. “But her own children were unaware of her own involvement… She was a very private person. She was not out to seek glory. All she wanted was a school that was equal to the whites. That’s all. And I think the life she lived after that proves that she was a selfless individual.”

            That life was centered on being the best mother and wife and school teacher she possibly could. The history-launching events of 1951 were not the topic of family discussions as she raised her children and supported her husband’s ministry in Philadelphia.

            “The strange thing about this was this writing lay at home on top of the bureau from about 1990 until 1999 when I left Philadelphia,” said Rev. Powell, who has retired to the Cullen area. “My daughter discovered it, had it (copied) and gave every member of the family a copy of it. Isn’t that strange that that length of time would transpire and that nobody would even recognize that it was there and all of a sudden it comes to light?”

            The entire transcript of the notes related to her decision to lead a student strike was published in The Herald last September, a fact Rev. Powell made a point of acknowledging Tuesday night.

            “Now you explain to me how a 16-year old would develop that kind of spirit, that kind of attitude, and all she was concerned about was that everything would be made equal,” Rev. Powell said. “And that is the heritage she leaves us.”

            One of faith in God and the conviction to follow inspired dreams.

            As his eyes scanned the audience, Rev. Powell said, “there are some young people here this evening and I’m hoping that all of us will nourish the dreams we have and then stick to them. Don’t let anybody drive you away from that dream, but hold on to it because you will find the power and the strength to make that dream come true.”

            And that power and that strength can be God-given, he believes.

            “There is no play, there is no movie, there is no drama that does not have His direction, And we may think that we are undirected in this world and in this life but I’ve got news for you – we are directed and nothing happens, nothing occurs without the knowledge and inspection of God.”

            It was after praying in her bed one night in 1951 that the idea of a student strike dawned on Barbara Johns. “The plan was given to her (by God).” Rev. Powell said. “She implemented it right away.”

            It was her dream, she wrote, that once people saw the students marching down the street, once people heard of their plight, that they would immediately see to it that a new school was established.

            “See how naive she was?” asked Rev. Powell. “She had no idea of the furor that it would create and, in fact, stayed in creation until 1964 (when county schools re-opened after closing in 1959). It was contention all along the way. That was not her plan. Her plan was hoping they would get a new school building because of the inequalities of the times.”

            As a teenager, Barbara Johns had “faith in the white people,” Rev. Powell said. “She felt they would join with (students) and build a new school, and unfortunately all of this ugliness came out.

            “Yes,” he continued,” it is hurtful … but we have to go on.”

The Pain Is Very Real

            The pain is still very real, Joan Johns Cobb told those attending the program in the Parents and Friends Lounge at H-SC. “It’s still very painful today to talk about it. It’s very painful and I think that’s why you don’t get some of the original students who were involved in the strike, who helped Barbara with it, you can’t get them to come back and talk about it because it is still very painful,” said Ms. Cobb, who now lives in New Jersey.

            “I just can’t tell you how painful it is. I imagine every student who went through it is still suffering inside,” she said. “In order to understand how deep that hurt is you would have to have experienced it … We can’t almost put it into words how deeply we were hurt and still, to this day, it hurts. I just can’t describe the depth of the hurt.”

            A member of the audience had asked if any former students would be willing to share their feelings and along with Ms. Cobb, Willie Shepperson – in school at R.R. Moton High School on the day of the strike – did so. “Prince Edward has never given me any remorse,” he said. “Nobody ever said we’re sorry for what we did. Never said it.”

            Both he and Ms. Cobb asked that the truth be told about what happened. “Help us tell the truth,” he said, when someone asked if there was anything anyone could do to help ease the pain.

No Enmity

            Though “indeed saddened” by the county’s school-closing response to Brown v. Board, Barbara Johns Powell harbored no enmity towards whites, her husband added.

            “No, not at all. She never spoke disparagingly of any white person,” Rev. Powell told two reporters following the program.

            As a teenager in Prince Edward, Rev. Powell had told his audience, Barbara Johns “never expected” the backlash that occurred. “It caught her unawares, and it’s just unfortunate.”

            The he added, “You know, growing up, growth sometimes is painful and we just don’t like to talk about it.”

            As the discussion continued during the question and answer period following his prepared remarks, Rev. Powell said, “one thing I have determined in life and that is you have to leave the hurts behind. Life goes on and you are faced with different challenges each and every day and you’ll always find somebody in society that doesn’t like you. If you stand on your head, you will not please them. So what do you do? Do you just lull around and fail to achieve to what you can accomplish because this individual doesn’t like you? No, indeed. You just use what tools you have to make the best out of your existence.”

            Moments later, Ms. Cobb stood again and said, “My dear brother-in-law, you did not grow up here in Virginia so you do not realize what we are trying to say as far as the depth of the pain that we are suffering. And I think we have moved on. However, it’s not gone … It is still deep … Don’t try to pretend it never happened because that’s the feeling we get to this very day, that nothing every happened here like that and that’s why we can’t get over the pain.”

            Following the program, Rev. Powell told two journalists that he “fell in love with Virginia by going to school in Richmond” and so understood “some of the hurt they’re talking about.”

            He believes the anti-integration actions of some whites were motivated by fear of economic repercussions.

            “The white people of that time they were afraid of their jobs and when you have a whole unit that believes the Negro is this, that, or the other, you go along with it or you will be ostracized,” he told reporters, “So I can understand the plight of many whites.”

            To follow Barbara Johns and the civil rights movement, or not.

            To the crowd at H-SC Tuesday night, Rev. Powell said, “We need more Barbara Johns. There are many areas in our society … Those of you who have dreams, dream the right way. And dream always in the benefit of your fellow man. You have got to be selfless in this.”

            Quoting a verse from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – “Why, if the soul can fling the dust aside and naked on the air of heaven rise” – Rev. Powell ended the evening saying, “If we can separate ourselves from the physical man and allow that spirit to live and exercise, what a wonderful life we’d have. Barbara died happy. She was thankful … I cherish the years God granted us together.”

            H-SC English professor George Bagby, who opened and closed Tuesday night’s program, told the crowd that “I do think the spirit of God works through a session like this. We would all be a lot better off if we had more of these sessions, sit down, look at each other and say what’s on our minds. These are painful things, not just for the people who speak them, but for those of us who hear them.”

            Were it not for her handwritten notes, composed late in life for a filmmaker who’s project was left unfulfilled because of Ms. Powell’s death, her words about the moment and movement in American history she helped shape would have remained silent.

            Her actions would have spoken for themselves.

            Rev. Powell told those listening Tuesday night that it takes “a giant to stand up and say, ‘This is wrong.’ And we don’t have too many giants.”