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Virginia Governor Unveils Civil Rights Activist Portrait in State Capitol Ceremony

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By Christian K. Finkbeiner, Special To NNPA from The Richmond Free Press –

She was only 16, but her role in the Civil Rights Movement was one of great importance. And now the commonwealth of Virginia is again ready to honor Barbara R. Johns for heroically leading a school strike in 1951 that led to the abolition of segregated schools in the Old Dominion and across the country.

Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell recently unveil a portrait of this heroine at the State Capitol, once a ruling seat of white supremacy. Ms. Johns, who died in 1991, will join former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder as the only African-Americans with portraits hanging in the historic Capitol that was built in part by slave labor. Her portrait will be displayed in the Capitol rotunda. The new honor for Ms. Johns contrasts with Gov. McDonnell’s controversial declaration of April as Confederate History Month , which saluted those who fought to keep Black people enslaved — a proclamation that attracted national criticism. However, in his January inaugural address, the governor twice cited Ms. Johns as an educational role model, saying at one point that she was “willing to risk everything for the simple opportunity of a good education.”

Her likeness is already displayed on a statue in the Civil Rights Monument that was erected in 2008 on Capitol Square near the Executive Mansion, in Richmond, Virginia, during the administration of Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine.

Ms. Johns was a junior in high school when she took her bold action that shook the state and its segregationist regime. But, the teenager was fed up with the separate and unequal education treatment she and other students endured because of the vicious, government-backed bigotry in her hometown of Farmville, Virginia. She was angry that she and 450 other African-American students were being crammed into the aging and leaky Robert R. Moton High School that county officials built to accommodate 180 students.

With the backing of her family, Ms. Johns recruited other student leaders for a protest against the school’s inferior condition. On April 23, 1951, she led an unprecedented student walkout and strike to demand a new school. The two-week student protest drew the attention of a trio of legendary Richmond civil rights attorneys: Oliver W. Hill Sr., Spottswood W. Robinson III, and Martin E. Martin.

They filed suit in federal court against county officials –– a case that eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court and became part of the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS. The Supreme Court’s ruling in that landmark case threw out the doctrine of “separate but equal” in declaring enforced racial segregation of public schools unconstitutional. In defiance of the court ruling, Prince Edward County later closed its public schools rather than integrate them as part of Massive Resistance promulgated by the Virginia Democratic Party. It took five years and another ruling to get the schools reopened.

Ms. Johns’ parents, who feared for her life after the strike, sent her to live with relatives in Montgomery, Ala. She later married the Rev. William Powell, raised five children and worked as a librarian until her death at age 56.

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+1 # Guest 2010-09-24 09:49
Readers might be interested to know where Johns' portrait ended up. It's on the basement level, between a column and the elevator. On the second floor next to the Rotunda ironically are Queen Elizabeth whose ancestors didn't want America to be free, and Harry Byrd who promoted the very activities that caused Barbara Johns and her classmates to stage the walkout. There are no African Americans on the second/main floor of the Capitol. And Barbara Johns was relegated to the basement.

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