The symbolism of replacing a man who fought against the United States and defended slavery with a teenage black girl who risked everything to get a better education is a potent one.
The Commission on Historical Statues in the United States Capitol has recommended that civil rights icon Barbara Rose Johns represent Virginia in the National Statuary Hall Collection, replacing the existing statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
Gov. Ralph Northam has also announced that his proposed budget includes dearly $500,000 to replace the statue.
“On April 23, 1951, sixteen-year-old Barbara Rose Johns led a student walkout at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, protesting the overcrowded and inferior conditions of the all-Black school compared to those of White students at nearby Farmville High School,” a release said.
Her actions got the support of NAACP lawyers Spottswood Robinson and Oliver Hill, who took up her case and filed a lawsuit that would later be one fo five cases the United States Supreme Court reviewed in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka when it declared segregation unconstitutional.
“As a teenager, Barbara Johns bravely led a protest that defied segregation and challenged the barriers that she and her African American peers faced, ultimately dismantling them,” said Northam. “I am proud that her statue will represent Virginia in the U.S. Capitol, where her idealism, courage, and conviction will continue to inspire Virginians, and Americans, to confront inequities and fight for meaningful change now and for generations to come.”
More on what she did and set in motion, from Bill Moyers, The Girl Who Sparked Brown v. Board of Education.
In many ways, Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia, was representative of the situation across great swaths of the United States in 1951. In comparison to its white counterpart across town, this school that served blacks was underfunded, undersupplied and dilapidated. More than 450 children were enrolled at the school, which was designed to hold only 180. The building had no gym, no cafeteria and no indoor plumbing. As many as three classes were being taught at the same time in the cramped auditorium; others were held in old school buses parked on site.
Conditions were so bad that the state government offered money to improve the school in 1947, but the all-white county school board refused to accept it. Instead, the county built several tar paper shacks — referred to as “chicken coops ” — that were hot in warm weather, cold in the winter and did not have enough desks.
Parents and educators in the black community had tried to get changes implemented and a new school built, but nothing substantive was forthcoming from the white powers that be. And the risks of organizing were serious under Jim Crow, ranging from casual threats to loss of employment, injury and lynching.
When 16-year-old Barbara Rose Johns approached her teacher about the situation, she was told to “do something about it.” It’s likely that Barbara was also inspired by her uncle, the civil rights leader, the Rev. Vernon Johns and others in her family who valued education.
Sometime in the winter of 1950 Barbara had an idea.
Last night, Virginia removed its statue of Robert E. Lee from the U.S. Capitol.
This is an important step forward—it is past time we tell our story with images of perseverance, diversity, and inclusion. pic.twitter.com/zyR99ukiIz
— Ralph Northam (@GovernorVA) December 21, 2020
The removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee and its forthcoming replacement by a tribute to Barbara Johns of Virginia is welcome news. There is no room for celebrating the bigotry of the Confederacy in the Capitol or any other place of honor in our country. https://t.co/jAx4CmS3oN
— Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi) December 21, 2020
4:02 am. 12/21/20. Crypt of the US Capitol. pic.twitter.com/2ttGecsj5B
— Tim Kaine (@timkaine) December 21, 2020