Johns' Story Speaks To Everyone

Published 3:55 pm Tuesday, March 4, 2014

FARMVILLE — Teri Kanefield has always been drawn to stories of strong and courageous girls.

So 16-year old Barbara Rose Johns drew her like a magnet.

“I was completely taken by the idea of a teenage girl taking a stand against injustice in a time when girls were not encouraged to be leaders, and in a place that made it dangerous for her,” the author said.

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The Girl From The Tar Paper School is a book for young people about the history-making Johns. It is about her life and how she led her classmates to give birth to the civil rights movement on April 23, 1951. That student strike at R. R. Moton High School against separate and unequal conditions for black students also planted the seeds that would harvest Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision three years later.

“The story was about young people, so it made sense to write for young people,” Kanefield said of the lavishly illustrated 56-page book published this year. “Personally, I like to write for young people because of how much I loved books as a child. I still remember vividly all the books I fell in love with as a child. When a book touches a child, it seems to me the touch can go deeper than when a book touches an adult.”

An accomplished writer, the California resident’s historical novel Rivka’s Way earned Sydney Taylor Award Notable Book status and her essays and stories have appeared in a number of periodicals.

Kanefield was surprised, after learning of Johns in Richard Kluger’s book about the Brown case, Simple Justice, that “nobody I knew had ever heard of her. Because her story is an important piece of American history, it seemed to me a story everyone should know about.”

Collecting information and photos for the book led Kanefield to another surprise—“how warmly I was welcomed when I traveled through Virginia, interviewing people and asking for photographs. I expected people to say, ‘Who are you and what makes you think you can write about our local heroine? Instead,” Kanefield said, “people were kind and open and willing to talk to me.”

The biggest challenge was gathering the photographs that so complement the words in telling the story.

“Definitely. When I first started asking for photographs, all I heard was, ‘There aren’t any.’ When my editor told me the book should have at least 50 photographs,” she recalls, “I had no idea what to do.”

Kanefield spent hours in the Library of Virginia scrolling through microfilm, hunting for photos published in the now defunct Richmond Afro-American newspaper. She then had to figure out how to access their archives.

The perseverance paid off.

Big time.

“The most important photo in their archives, from my viewpoint, was the photo of Barbara at the podium when she gave her riveting speech in the church. Turns out that photo was misfiled. It took the archivist weeks to find it,” Kanefield said of the meeting with the NAACP in First Baptist Church on May 3, 1951, with over 1,000 attending, the parents of the R. R. Moton High School students deciding to support their children. Four days later, the NAACP filed a petition with the Prince Edward County School Board for the integration of county schools, as the strikers returned to class.

When the school board rejected the petition, the NAACP responded on May 23 with a lawsuit in federal court based on the declaration that segregation was unconstitutional.

Kanefield’s tenacious research also produced a photograph that Johns’ family had never seen, uncovered by the archivist at Spelman College, of the 19-year old Johns as an undergraduate.

While the story of Johns centers on her historic impact on the integration of public schools in the United States, Kanefield also enjoyed learning the details of “everyday life for Barbara and others in a small rural town in the 1950s, so different from my own experiences.”

The little details were most memorable.

“Like how Barbara and her sister (Joan), when they needed extra money they cut down trees and hauled the lumber to sell in town,” Kanefield said.

She also felt the powerful pull of a sense of place so important to the story.

“I’ve never been to this part of the country before. When I first started talking to Barbara’s sister, Joan Johns Cobbs,” Kanefield said, “she kept saying, ‘Teri, you won’t really understand until you visit Prince Edward County.’

“She was right.”

And now Barbara Rose Johns lives forever on the pages of her book.

For Kanefield, Johns speaks to us today as a reminder that “every single day history is being made, so we should take some control.”

She is fascinated by how many decades passed before people “took an interest in Barbara’s story. For lots of very complicated reasons it has taken almost a half a century for her to be widely recognized as a true American hero.”

Which leaves the author believing “there are Barbara Johnses among us now but we are not recognizing them as visionaries and heroes.”

The lesson Johns’ life teaches young people, she said, is “look around. Find an injustice and try to correct it.

“If everyone did that,” Kanefield observed, “the world would be a much better place.”

As for what adults and parents can learn from the accomplishments of the 16-yeasr old Barbara Johns, Kanefield is equally certain.

“Listen to the kids. You don’t always know better than they do. You may think ‘This is how things are’ or ‘This is how thing have to be,’ but young people,” Kanefield pointed out, “can approach problems with more energy and enthusiasm, and often fewer doubts and less fearfulness.

“Young people, looking at the world with fresh eyes, may see injustices that we overlook because we are used to them. Soon enough,” she concluded, “the world will be theirs. They should be encouraged to take responsibility. One of my favorite aspects of the story was that the young people convinced the adults to take action.”

(The Girl From The Tar Paper Shack—Barbara Rose Johns And The Advent Of The Civil Rights Movement is published by Abrams Books For Young Readers and is available at the Moton Museum’s gift shop and from all book sellers)