4th graders pushed for Johns historical marker

Published 8:08 am Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The late Barbara Rose Johns recently gained recognition from an unlikely group of Virginia citizens in the historical marker series created by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR). The markers, often found along roadways, commemorate notable people or places in state history.

Out of the 2,600 markers in the state, the first one dedicated solely to honoring Johns was installed in Farmville in February.

In April 1951 at the age of 16, Johns led more than 400 students in a walkout, peacefully protesting the unequal treatment of African American students as illustrated then by the poor facilities at Robert Russa Moton High School, the school she was attending in Farmville.

Barbara Rose Johns

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

The marker recognizing her is placed along Griffin Boulevard right next to her old high school, which is now the Robert Russa Moton Museum.

It is only fitting that Johns’ recognition was made possible through the actions of young Virginia students.

More than 50 fourth graders at Laurel Ridge Elementary School in Fairfax let Gov. Ralph Northam know they wanted him to support the creation of the Johns historical marker.

Maura Keaney, a school-based technology specialist with Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), explained how these fourth graders became advocates for both Johns and the marker.

She said she had been doing a historical marker scavenger hunt with the fourth graders at Laurel Ridge for many years. She sent them on a year-long mission to go to as many historical sites in the state as they could, both in person and online, and to also find historical markers.

For FCPS students in fourth grade, one of the required subjects is desegregation and massive resistance in the 20th century. At one point in the curriculum, students have the option to go down different educational paths, delving more deeply into particular aspects of the subject, including learning more about Johns.

“Almost all the students chose to learn more about Barbara Johns,” Keaney said of her fourth graders during the 2019-20 school year. “They were most interested in just getting to know about her and (were) kind of astonished.

“Her story was so important in not just Virginia history but in American history,” Keaney added, “and I remember a student raising her hand, and she said, ‘Rosa Parks is really important, but why do I know Rosa Parks, who was in Alabama, but I don’t know Barbara Johns, who was here in Virginia?’

“And then somebody else piped up, ‘Yeah, and it seems like what Barbara Johns did has changed everything for all of us not just in Virginia but around the country, but why isn’t she taught in schools, and why don’t our parents all know her name?’”

The students wanted to know how many historical markers existed highlighting Johns.

“As part of the historical markers scavenger hunt, I have a Google Classroom that has (what’s) called a ‘Clues’ section where they can look things up,” Keaney said. “One of the things we have is a link to the state historical marker database.”

She directed students to check the database, and she said when they did, they exclaimed that there was nothing there for Johns, but there were 78 markers relevant to Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart.

“So that was kind of eye-opening for the kids,” Keaney said.

Keaney and the students started to research in early January 2020 what it would take to create a marker honoring Johns.

“Maybe we could crowdsource a marker together, and the kids could compile research on Barbara Johns and put together all these resources, and we could kind of crowdsource a marker narrative together, send it to the Department of Historic Resources and then raise the money to have it erected if they agreed to it,” Keaney said, recalling the thought process.

She figured they could start a GoFundMe campaign or something to try to raise the money to fund the marker.

“So they had started to do some research and pull together resources, and then the historical marker contest was announced,” she said.

The DHR website states Gov. Northam’s inaugural Black History Month Historical Marker Contest encouraged schools during February 2020 to feature a different marker daily from “A Guidebook to Virginia’s African American Historical Markers,” which DHR published in late 2019. The governor’s office provided teachers with resources to guide history discussions, promoted Black History Month events around the commonwealth and initiated the competition for students to submit ideas for new historical markers to DHR.

The governor’s office received 285 entries from students across the state, the website continues. A team of historians at DHR reviewed them and selected 10 entries based on the Historical Highway Marker criteria. The Virginia Board of Historic Resources approved the first group of winning markers at its public quarterly meeting in June 2020. DHR expects the remaining five winners from the contest to be manufactured and erected in 2021.

Moton Museum Executive Director Cameron Patterson shared a post on Twitter Feb. 11 noting the historical marker had been installed Feb. 10. In the tweet, he tagged Keaney, asking her to please share it with her students.

“You all helped to make this happen,” he wrote.

The Johns family was involved in deciding the marker’s placement.

“When we got word that the marker would be making its way to the area, I reached out to members of the Johns family,” Patterson said Friday, Feb. 26. “We had a good conversation as to whether or not the marker would go out at the Johns homestead out in Darlington Heights or if it would reside here in Farmville.

“The family really felt adamant at the idea that the marker should be here in Farmville at the site of the action that took place with the student walkout,” he said. “And they really thought that it being here in Farmville would give more individuals the opportunity to view it, and so we were grateful to work alongside them in determining that location.”

Patterson was moved by the undertaking of the 2019-20 fourth graders from Laurel Ridge.

“I think it just says a lot that it was young students that were inspired by this history in full,” he said. “They were really inspired by the actions of Prince Edward County citizens in the fight for educational equality, and they felt compelled that Barbara Johns needed to be recognized in this way. So I think it just says a lot that it was young students who came forward with this request.

“To me that really speaks to what we aim to do at the museum and that’s to take a story that’s predominantly about young folks and make those powerful present-day connections in individual’s lives.”