Portrait of Barbara Rose Johns, featured at the Virginia capitol.

1951 Student Strike at Moton High

Portrait of Barbara Rose Johns, featured at the Virginia capitol.

Barbara Johns’ inspiring actions on April 23, 1951 led to a student strike and subsequent legislation that ended school segregation.

Moton — named after Robert Russa Moton who succeeded Booker T. Washington as head of the Tuskegee Institute — was the black high school in Prince Edward County Virginia’s segregated school system. Farmville, the local white high school, has a cafeteria, gym, school nurse, shop classes, and lockers for students; Moton has no such facilities — it does not even have restrooms for the teachers.

Originally built to accommodate 180 students, by the early 1950s more than 450 pupils attend Moton. It is so crowded that three classes are simultaneously taught in the auditorium, while other classes are taught in old, hand-me-down school buses.

When the state of Virginia offered money to improve Moton in 1947, the all-white School Board refused to accept it. (Since blacks are denied the right to vote, they have no voice in electing the School Board.) Instead, the Board builds three “tar paper shacks” — freezing cold in the winter, sweltering hot in the spring — which do little to relieve the terrible over-crowding at Moton.

In the winter of 1950, Moton student Barbara Johns — niece of Alabama civil rights leader Rev. Vernon Johns — begins organizing a student strike to protest poor school conditions. She calls a secret meeting of four other trusted students to discuss the problem and plan a strategy. Slowly, carefully, they increase the clandestine committee, first to 10 and then by the Spring of 1951 to 15 of the most respected students at Moton. By April they are ready to act.

On April 23rd they lure the principal out of the school with a false phone call reporting truants causing trouble downtown. Then they forge announcements calling an immediate school assembly in the auditorium. Strike committee leaders ask all teachers to leave the hall and then Barbara takes the stage, speaks to the issue and asks the students to go out on strike to protest over- crowding and inadequate facilities. 450 students — almost the entire student body — answer her call. When the principal returns from downtown he tries to talk them out of striking, but their commitment is firm — the strike is on!

The student strike committee tries to meet with the school superintendent about their demands for adequate facilities, but he refuses to see them and threatens them with expulsions. The following day, 200 of the student strikers meet with local NAACP leaders who attempt to get them to call off their strike. They refuse. With their organization solid and their commitment firm, the NAACP and many of the parents now swing to their support. National NAACP leaders meet with students and parents and propose that they go beyond pushing for better schools — that they demand desegregation.

At a mass meeting on the third day of the strike, the students and their adult supporters collectively decide to sue for integration and to continue the strike until May 7, when the school year ends. The lawsuit that the NAACP files on their behalf — Davis et al v. the County School Board of Prince Edward County, VA, et al — becomes one of the five cases that are later consolidated and decided under the name Brown v Board of Education in 1954.