Johns, Griffin & Anderson honored

Published 10:52 am Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Three civil rights and educational leaders who changed the public school system in Prince Edward, the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States were honored and memorialized on Saturday.

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The Honoring Our Legacy event — spearheaded and organized by the Prince Edward School Board and members of the community — served as the official ceremony of the naming of the Barbara Rose Johns Auditorium at the high school, the Rev. L. Francis Griffin Sr. Gymnasium at the middle school and the Dr. James M. Anderson Jr. School Board Meeting Room.

The event was marked by testimonies of the struggles the three faced in their work for public education and equality along with their successes. Students shared poems and The Voices of Unity choir shared the favorite song of each of the honorees.

“Today, we honor three people who brought light into the world with tremendous courage and utter conviction,” event emcee and retired Herald Editor Ken Woodley said. “We honor three people who ran their light into the world’s darkness against overwhelming odds that cast long shadows across the world. We honor three people who did not sit on the sidelines.”

The late Johns, when she was 16 years old, led a walkout of students at R.R. Moton High School on April 23, 1951, to protest unequal school facilities. Her actions and those of others eventually led to the court case that became part of the Brown Supreme Court decision that ended segregation in public schools nationwide.

The late Rev. Griffin, pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmville, picked up the mantle of the civil rights struggle. Griffin opened his church to the students and community as a meeting place following the walkout, mentoring students and focusing his life on fighting for equal education and the reopening of the schools.

Dr. Anderson served as superintendent of the county schools for 25 years, leading the school division following the reopening of the public schools. Under his leadership, funding improved, curricular and athletic programs were greatly increased and school facilities were modernized and expanded, in addition to increased student achievement.

“At the suggestion from an individual in the community, the school board realized it was due time that the school system acknowledge the impact these individuals had on education in Prince Edward,” Russell Dove, the school board chairman and event chairman, said. All three improved racial equality in Prince Edward, he said, calling Johns a fearless leader, Griffin a tenacious preacher and Anderson a determined school leader.

Joe Cabarrus Speakes, one students who marched with Johns in 1951, served as the event committee’s vice-chair. She said her classmate’s actions “changed public education in Prince Edward County and America.”

“It is indeed an honor to be here today to witness the naming of Prince Edward County High School’s auditorium after the late Barbara Rose Johns Powell,” Barbara’s sister Joan Johns Cobbs said. “On behalf of her family … we thank you, Mr. Russell Dove and the entire school board and honoring our legacy committee. Never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined the numerous honors that have been bestowed upon Barbara since her passing on Sept. 25, 1991.”

Cobbs said that her sister’s legacy was intact for all of the future to see and embrace.

“Barbara was a woman of great faith and courage,” she said.

Naja Griffin-Johnson, the oldest daughter of Rev. Griffin said that the ceremony was a long time coming, “but it’s a day worth waiting for.”

“I am both excited and honored to be here this afternoon to pay homage to the contributions of … three individuals who changed and greatly impacted the history of Prince Edward County,” she said, noting that the three answered their own individual callings to serve.

Griffin-Johnson said her father’s faith was strong, and he knew that God would right the wrongs and justice would prevail.

“Our father gave all of his energy to the promise of seeing the schools reopened … He preached tolerance and forgiveness,” she said.

“I sincerely appreciate this great honor,” Dr. Anderson said. “I’m accepting this honor that you’ve bestowed upon me not as an individual, but on behalf of the many associates that fought so hard to bring this school system to a respectable standard.”

The longtime superintendent described the resistance he met and the success and progress the division made as led the division.

“I want you to know it wasn’t an easy ride. It was always opposition, it was always something else or something less. But the steadfast support of the associates we had in the school system, with the steadfast support of the students, parents and those supporters in the community we had, we were able to make this a school system that schools were accredited every single year. …”

Retired State Senator Henry Marsh said that the Prince Edward experience shaped his life. He said the ceremony showed him that if people of goodwill come together, anything could be done. “My life has been changed because of what you did,” he said.

Dove said the ceremony honored the efforts of individuals that influenced public education in the struggle for equality before, during and after that five-year closing of the schools.