Barbara Johns Biography

Civil Rights Activist, Activist (1935–1991)
In 1951, Barbara Johns led her fellow students in a walkout to protest school segregation. She then started a lawsuit that became part of Brown v. Board of Ed.


Barbara Johns was born in New York City in 1935, but grew up in Prince Edward County, Virginia, where blacks and whites had separate schools. In 1951, she led her fellow African American high school students in a walkout to protest the inequality of segregated schools. She then started a lawsuit that became part of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case that eventually ended school segregation.

Young Civil Rights Activist

Social activist Barbara Johns was born in New York City in 1935. Johns grew up in Prince Edward County, Virginia. At the time, the schools were segregated. White students went to one set of schools while African Americans went to another. The conditions of the African American schools were much worse than the whites-only schools. Johns attended the Robert Russa Moton High School, which suffered from overcrowding and poor facilities. The building was meant for only approximately 150 students, but by the 1950s there were more than 400 students enrolled. The county's all-white school board tried to fix this problem by erecting three tar-paper buildings on school grounds, which have been described by some as "chicken shacks."?

In 1951, Johns took a stand against the unequal treatment of African American and white students in the county. The niece of the outspoken minister, Vernon Johns, she bravely stood in front of her fellow students at an assembly and delivered an impassioned speech. She urged them to join her in a strike against the school system to force them to make changes. Following her lead the students left the school in protest of overcrowding. This walkout was one of the first of its kind.

Davis v. Prince Edward

Johns then contacted two lawyers, Oliver W. Hill and Spottswood Robinson III, who were with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. They agreed to help with a lawsuit aimed at ending racial segregation. The case was called Dorothy E. Davis et al v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia., but it usually referred to as Davis v. Prince Edward. A ninth grader named Dorothy E. Davis was the first named plaintiff in the case, but the suit actually represented 117 students in all. The lawyers filed the suit in 1951. The following year, the U.S. District Court sided with the school board.

Davis v. Prince Edward later became part of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 case in which the United States Supreme Court declared that segregation was unconstitutional. For her part in the integration movement, Johns was harassed and reportedly went to live with relatives in Alabama after a cross was burned in her family's yard.

Despite the Supreme Court ruling, Prince Edward County and the state of Virginia resisted integration. The state passed a series of laws that superseded the court's decision, allowing schools not to be forced to integrate. But in 1959, these rules were struck down in state and federal courts. Still Prince Edward County pressed on with its anti-integration efforts, closing its schools rather than having black and white students use the same facilities. The schools remained closed for five years, reopening in 1964.

Later Life

Once at the center of the public debate on segregation, Johns spent the rest of her life away from the media spotlight. She furthered her education at Spelman College and Drexel University. Committed to education, she became a school librarian and married Rev. William Powell. The couple had five children together. She died in 1991.

To this day, Barbara Johns is remembered for her role in the fight against school segregation. She showed the world through her actions that one person can be a force for change. Johns has been honored in her home state. In 2008, Virginia state unveiled a monument of Barbara Johns in Richmond's Capitol Square to commemorate her role in desegregating schools. 

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