• 41°

Library dedicated to Johns

Prominent leaders in the town and county congregated Sunday for the dedication of the Barbara Rose Johns Farmville-Prince Edward Community Library.

The library was renamed in honor of Johns, who at the age of 16, led more than 400 students out on a strike April 23, 1951, peacefully protesting the unequal treatment of African-American students as illustrated by the poor facilities at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville.

Her stand helped birth the civil rights movement, leading to the desegregation of public schools in the U.S.

As he welcomed people to Sunday’s dedication, Farmville Mayor David Whitus explained how the event came to pass.

“Farmville did not have anything, specifically, in the town to honor (Johns), so I appointed a committee and Vice Mayor Reid graciously agreed to chair that committee along with Councilman Donald Hunter, Councilman Dan Dwyer and Councilperson Sally Thompson,” he said. “And so, they looked at a number of ways that the town could appropriately honor her, and given her long history in the library, how appropriate it is that we are here today in a library — where she spent much of her life — to honor her.”

Speaking on behalf of the Johns family, which was well-represented at the dedication, Joan Johns Cobbs opened her remarks by asking for a moment of silence in honor of her sister, Barbara Rose, who died from cancer 26 years ago, and their mother, who died 54 years ago on the same date as the dedication.

“So today is both a sad and a happy day,” she said. “On behalf of Barbara’s family, we would like to thank Mayor Whitus, Vice Mayor Reid, Town Manager Spates and the town council members for naming the Prince Edward County library after Barbara. It is so fitting because Barbara was a librarian, and having this library named after her is a great honor.”

Sally Thompson later read a letter from Gov.-elect Ralph Northam, in which he noted that “Barbara Johns retired after 24 years of public service as the librarian in the public school system in the city of Philadelphia. It is fitting that we honor her memory by renaming this institution, which gives our young Virginians the educational resources they need to succeed.”

Of the renaming, Cobbs said, “I cannot tell you how grateful I am that this has happened in my lifetime, as the years have just rolled by, and I am so thankful that we are able to witness such a great honor.”

Cobbs shared some excerpts from Barbara’s diary in which she recounted the events leading up to the historic strike.

“‘All day, my mind and thoughts were whirling, and as I lay in my bed that night, I prayed for help,’” Cobbs read, quoting Barbara. “‘That night, whether in a dream or whether I was awake — but I felt I was awake — a plan began to formulate in my mind, a plan I felt was divinely inspired, because I hadn’t been able to think of anything until then. That plan was to assemble together the student council members, whom I considered the crème de la crème of the school. However, they were smart and were thinkers. I knew them and trusted them, and I was a part of them. From this, we would formulate a plan to go on a strike. We would make signs, and I would give a speech stating our dissatisfaction, and we would march out of the school.’”

Cobbs described her sister as “a brave, courageous and fearless young person who saw an injustice and decided to do something about it. … When I think about Barbara, a chapter in the Bible comes to mind — Isaiah Chapter 11, verse six: ‘The wolf shall also dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.’”

Prior to the unveiling of a plaque honoring Johns and the new sign for the library bearing her name, Ken Woodley delivered a speech entitled, “In the Footsteps of a Dream.”

In this speech, he expounded on Johns’ dream of a happy, undivided community and said, “The decision by the Town of Farmville to rename this fabulous, state-of-the-art library in honor of Barbara Rose Johns, who spent her entire adult life as a librarian in the Philadelphia public school system, is a milestone moment, a mile marker showing how far the dream has traveled since 1951.”