A national commemoration: Garrett seeks congressional recognition of Barbara Johns

Published 2:17 pm Tuesday, April 4, 2017

U.S. Rep. Tom Garrett, R-Buckingham, has introduced legislation to designate April 23 as civil rights pioneer Barbara Rose Johns Day nationwide.

The bill, introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on Monday, “requests that the president issue a proclamation calling upon the people of the United States to observe ‘Barbara Johns Day’ with appropriate ceremonies and activities and … encourages the people of the United States to consider the role and impact of Ms. Johns in the Civil Rights Movement and the role students have had in American history.”

“Barbara Johns embodies everything that we value as both Virginians and Americans,” Garrett said in a press release after introducing House Joint Resolution 245. “Real courage by a 16-year-old girl who sought to change a clear injustice is something we should admire and remember. Designation of this day will preserve her legacy and serve as a reminder that we should always strive to stand for what’s right, even in the face of adversity.”

Barbara Rose Johns

On April 23, 1951, Johns 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 all public schools.

The bill is similar to one introduced by state Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, in January. Peake’s Senate Joint Resolution in the Virginia General Assembly sought to designate April 23 of each year as Barbara Johns Day in Virginia. His legislation passed the Senate and House unanimously.

“This announcement from … Garrett acknowledges the national importance that Barbara Johns and her fellow Moton students played in expanding equality for all,” said Cameron Patterson, managing director of the Moton Museum. “Barbara Johns is one of the great citizen-leaders in our nation’s history, and this legislation will provide the museum with a platform to share the Moton Story with a larger audience of Americans. We look forward to following this bill as it makes its way through the legislative process.”

“I did not know about … Johns until I was elected to represent the 22nd (Senate) District,” Garrett said in an interview Tuesday. “But, the more I learned, the more fascinated and amazed I was and the more she kind of became a hero of mine.”

Garrett said when he speaks to students in schools, he compares Johns to Patrick Henry. “When Patrick Henry gave his … ‘Give me liberty or give me death (speech),’ and then from the back of the room, someone shouted ‘treason,’ and that implication was that you should go get a rope, that Henry should be killed for betrayal of the crown.”

He said Henry’s courage “to potentially lose everything, including your life, that’s pretty impressive coming from a 37-year-old attorney. It’s even more impressive coming from a 16-year-old young woman,” Garrett said. “I think that the challenges, the fears that Barbara Johns had to have were certainly on par with those that Henry would have had in that room when he said what he said.”

Tom Garrett

He said Johns was “perhaps more courageous” than Henry.

“I don’t believe we need to segregate our history, that we should have black history and white history and Latino history but we have American history,” Garrett said, “and Barbara Johns’ story is a story that I think is an inspiration. I think it emboldens people to stand up in the face of long odds and do what they think is right. And she’s a hero.”

He said “If this is an avenue to ensure that more young people learn who Barbara Johns was and what she did, then it’s a good bill.”

“Of all the cases rolled into the Brown ruling, the only one that was student-initiated, the only one that was initiated … by a child was Prince Edward County (and) Davis, which was the Barbara Johns case.”

The Farmville Town Council recently agreed to honor Johns by adding her name to that of the Farmville-Prince Edward Community Library.

The unanimous decision by council members came following a report from Ward C Councilman and Vice Mayor A.D. “Chuckie” Reid during a special meeting, called by Mayor David E. Whitus.

“As we went on, we talked about probably a way of adding her name (to the library) … instead of changing the whole name,” said Reid.

“The thought is to add her name to the library,” Whitus said.

According to a news release from the town, the library is jointly owned by the Town of Farmville and Prince Edward County. “Farmville Town Council’s approval is only part of the process of the renaming. The issue will now be before the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors,” town officials said in the release.