Barbara Johns Day in Virginia proposed in state legislature

Published 12:45 pm Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Newly elected state Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, has introduced a Senate Joint Resolution before his colleagues in the Virginia General Assembly that would designate April 28 of each year as Barbara Johns Day in Virginia.

Peake, who represents Farmville, Prince Edward, Buckingham and Cumberland as part of the 22nd Senate District, filed the resolution Tuesday.

Barbara Johns

Barbara Johns

“It is a resolution recognizing what she did,” Peake said of Johns, who, on April 23, 1951, led a student walkout of the R.R. Moton High School in Farmville, protesting the county school board’s lack of action regarding unequal educational facilities. The strike would lead to the five-year closure of public schools in the county and the Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit, where the U.S. Supreme Court would order the desegregation of public schools.

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“This was something that (former state Senator and current U.S. Rep.) Tom Garrett had started, and it just commends her for her significant impact that she had on race relations and on education in Virginia and nationwide,” Peake said of the resolution.

According to the resolution, Johns played a unique role in the early years of the civil rights movement by leading the only student protest associated with the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

If legislators adopt the resolution, Barbara Johns Day would first be celebrated next April.

“It’s so wonderful and awesome to know now that all of the sacrifices that Barbara (made) and the way she led fiercely and the distance that she made in America and in the nation and in Prince Edward County (are being recognized),” said Joy Cabarrus Speakes, Johns’ classmate who marched with her in 1951.

Speakes said she was inspired that “now they are beginning to recognize the work that has been done and the work that has been done by a 16-year-old … I think this will inspire our generations to come to know that someone, at 16 years old, took the stand, and now they are being recognized with a day set aside.”

“Those of us involved with the Moton Museum are delighted with the Senate’s joint resolution, following so closely on the heels of the naming of the 9th Street. Office Building (named) for Barbara Johns,” said Dr. Larissa Smith Fergeson, a Longwood University professor of history and the college’s liaison to the Moton Museum and National Historic Landmark.

Mark Peake

Mark Peake

“Here in Prince Edward County, we celebrate April 23 as Johns-Griffin day, honoring both Barbara Johns and the Rev. L. Francis Griffin for their leadership in civil rights,” she said.

“The Moton story is at heart a story of how ordinary citizens, working together and over a period of years, used the tools of democracy to make profound change and advance equality for all. Creating change in a democracy is really a journey. Change comes neither easy nor quick; it takes persistence, dedication and sacrifice.”

“It just sounds incredible,” said Moton’s Cainan Townsend, who serves as interim director of education and public programs. “It’s just great to see credit being given where credit is due.”

Peake said he expects the measure to be approved by both chambers of the General Assembly.

“Barbara Johns and other students at R.R. Moton High School struggled with leaky ceilings and freezing cold in the winters; parents of black students appealed to the all-white school board, which constructed tar paper shacks to handle the overflow of students,” the resolution states.

According to the resolution, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County was the “only school integration case initiated by a student strike, making Barbara Johns a pioneer in the peaceful protests that were a hallmark of the civil rights movement.”

Several other members of the Senate and House are co-patroning the resolution.