Barbara Rose Johns was born in New York City in 1935 to Violet and Robert Johns. During World War II, she moved to Farmville in Prince Edward County, Virginia, to live on a farm with her maternal grandmother Mary Croner. She spent most of her youth living and working on her grandmother’s, and later her father’s farm.
After years of frustration with the segregated Prince Edward County schools which she described in a memoir as having poor facilities, shabby equipment, and no science laboratories or gymnasium, Barbara took her concerns to a teacher who responded by asking her to “… do something about it.” Barbara describes feeling as though her teacher’s comments were dismissive, and as a result she was somewhat discouraged. However, after months of contemplation and imagination she began to formulate a plan.
As Barbara describes it, “the plan I felt was divinely inspired because I hadn’t been able to think of anything until then. The plan was to assemble together the student council members…From this, we would formulate plans to go on strike. We would make signs and I would give a speech stating our dissatisfaction and we would march out [of] the school and people would hear us and see us and understand our difficulty and would sympathize with our plight and would grant us our new school building and our teachers would be proud and the students would learn more and it would be grand…”
Seizing the moment, on April 23, 1951, Barbara Johns, a 16 year-old high school girl led her classmates in a strike to protest the substandard conditions at Robert Russa Moton High School. Her idealism, planning, and persistence ultimately garnered the support of NAACP lawyers Spotswood Robinson and Oliver Hill to take up her cause and the cause of more equitable conditions for Moton High School.
After meeting with the students and the community, lawyers Robinson and Hill filed suit at the federal courthouse in Richmond, Virginia. The case was called Davis v. Prince Edward. In 1954, the Farmville case became one of five cases that the US Supreme Court reviewed in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka when it declared school segregation unconstitutional.
Sometimes a courageous act by one person can set in motion a series of events that bring justice to an entire nation.
Following the strike, her family, concerned for Barbara’s safety following threats by local racist groups, sent Barbara to live and finish her schooling in Montgomery, Alabama. After graduating from high school, she attended Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, and ultimately graduated from Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Barbara Johns went on to lead a quiet life; she married Reverend William Powell, raised five children and was a librarian in the Philadelphia Public Schools. Barbara Johns Powell died in 1991.