UnCovered: A Virginia Civil Rights Hero
Sen. Mark Warner
Moton High School (on the left, for black students) and Farmville High School (for white students) (4)
This Year marks the 68th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education – the seminal case that ended institutionalized school segregation in America. But did you know that this case partially came from a Virginia native?
Prior to Brown v. Board, during the Jim Crow era, many Virginia schools remained segregated, including the R.R. Moton High School in Prince Edward County, where sixteen-year-old Barbara Johns was a student. After experiencing many years of substandard school conditions, (plywood and tar paper structures that lacked heating and plumbing) she felt called to action against the injustice of segregation. On April 23, 1951, she led her classmates in a walkout to draw attention to the issue.
The strike attracted local and national attention, and two lawyers from the NAACP filed a lawsuit against the school district as a result. This case would eventually go on to be filed jointly with four other cases and argued in front of the Supreme Court under the name Brown v. Board of Education. I’m guessing you know the rest from here – the Court ruled that there was no legal basis for “separate but equal” and school segregation was officially outlawed.
I’m proud to honor Barbara Johns, which is why I sponsored a bill securing a National Park Service designation for the Moton Museum in Farmville, (64 miles south west of Richmond) which honors Johns and all the others that contributed to the local fight to end segregation. This bill passed the Senate unanimously and was recently signed into law, and it will help get the Moton Museum the support and preservation it deserves as it keeps this story alive. I also successfully pushed for a statue of Johns to be placed in the Capitol as another tribute to this civil rights hero – and I’m proud to report that the statue is currently in the works.
Home economics classrooms at Moton High School (on the left, for black students)
and Worsham High School (for white students) (5)
Editor's Note: An excellent mystery/adventure book for Middle Schoolers called, "“Pictures at the Protest" by Steven K. Smith explores the protest that was led by Barbara Johns. The lawyer who eventually took this case sued for desegregation rather than equal facilities. This case challenged the concept of "separate but equal" since the segregated schools had never been the least bit equal. Four other cases were eventually incorporated into the Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down school segregation as unconstitutional. (1)
As part of Virginia's Massive Resistance (2) to desegregation, Prince Edward County cut off funds to its public schools, which remained closed from 1959 to 1964. Most white students attended schools set-up as private schools that remained firmly segregated. Black students were left with no public education options. It was not until 2003 that the Virginia General Assembly issued a resolution apologizing to Prince Edward County students who lost five years of education.
According to an article published in The Alexandria Gazette (January 22, 1959), the Navy decided to open an education program for government personnel living on military bases in the Norfolk area if the Commonwealth of Virginia did not reopen the public schools in a reasonable time, reasonable yet to be defined. Norfolk had six secondary schools closed when the schools were ordered to open their doors to some Negro students. At that time Virginia’s Gov. J. Lindsay Almond Jr. suggested a varied system of public education. Some localities would not permit racially mixed schools while others would move to a system of private education for whites only. In those localities, as it was in Farmville, black students would be forbidden access to the private schools and all public schools were closed.
Gov. Almond said that the state would try, “as far as possible to save public education wherever it could be saved in Virginia.” Whenever public schools did try to integrate, lawsuits were filed, appealed, cross appealed and years passed. Finally, in 1964 after five years of delay, Virginia public schools were reopened and integrated. This is not to say all was peaceful. Integration was the law but prejudice and active discontent continued for decades.
A reminder of that period is capsulized in the movie, “Remember the Titans” staring Denzel Washington and Will Patton. The movie centers on the Titans football team at the newly created and integrated T. C. Williams High School. (Alexandria, Virginia) The recently appointed head coach is African American and insists that both black and white players be treated the same and that that they will all compete for their positions. After battling racial prejudice within the team, an eventual understanding, respect and even friendship develops. The Alexandria community finally embraced the Titans who achieved an undefeated season. (3)
(1) “Barbara Johns,” Virginia Changemakers, accessed May 21, 2022, https://edu.lva.virginia.gov/changemakers/items/show/121.
(2) "Massive Resistance was a policy adopted in 1956 by Virginia’s state government to block the desegregation of public schools mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court. Advocated by U.S. senator Harry F. Byrd Sr., a conservative Democrat and former governor who coined the term, Massive Resistance reflected the racial views and fears of Byrd’s power base in Southside Virginia as well as the senator’s reflexive disdain for federal government intrusion into state affairs. Massive Resistance added more bitterness to race relations already strained by the resentments engendered by the caste system and delayed large-scale desegregation of Virginia’s public schools for more than a decade. Meanwhile, Virginia’s defiance served as an example for the states of the Lower South, and the legal vestiges of Massive Resistance lasted until early in the 1970s." Hershman, James. "Massive Resistance" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 21 May. 2022
(3) Remember the Titans released September 23, 2000 (USA).
Distributed by: Walt Disney Pictures, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Co-produced by Walt Disney Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer Films and released by Buena Vista Pictures.
(4)www.docsteach.org/documents/document/moton-exterior & www.docsteach.org/documents/document/farmville-exterior DocsTeach is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Primary source documents included on this site generally come from the holdings of the National Archives and are in the public domain.
(5)www.docsteach.org/documents/document/moton-home-economics-sewing & www.docsteach.org/documents/document/worsham-home-economics-living Primary source documents included on this site generally come from the holdings of the National Archives and are in the public domain.