A classroom at an all-black school in South Carolina in 1954

Gluekit (photo colorization); Rudolph Faircloth/AP Images

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, RH.6-8.9, RI.6-8.3, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.6, SL.6-8.1, SL.6-8.2, W.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.6, WHST.6-8.10

C3 (D2/6-8): Civ.1, Civ.2, Civ.6, Civ.9, Civ.12, His.2, His.3, His.4, His.5

NCSS: Time, continuity, and change; Individuals, groups, and institutions

Enjoy this free article courtesy of Junior Scholastic, the Social Studies classroom magazine for grades 6–8.

FLASHBACK

True Teens of History

This Student Helped Desegregate America’s Schools 

In 1951, a courageous protest by Barbara Johns led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling that declared segregated public schools illegal—and changed the nation forever  

Courtesy of Joan Johns Cobbs

Behind a deep-purple curtain on the stage of her school’s auditorium, Barbara Johns, 16, stood waiting. What she was about to do could put her—and her friends and family—in danger. But she wasn’t afraid. The curtain rose. A gasp rippled across the room as hundreds of students—expecting to see their principal—looked up at her with surprise. 

It was the spring of 1951 in the rural community of Farmville, Virginia. At the time, African Americans like Barbara were often treated with hatred and bigotry. In the South, Jim Crow laws and customs prevented many black people from exercising their right to vote and forced them to use separate public facilities, including parks, movie theaters, swimming pools, and water fountains (see "You Might Need to Know . . . ," below).

In Virginia—and 20 other states—black students and white students were also required to attend segregated schools. The schools reserved for blacks and those for whites were supposed to be equal, but they never were.

Barbara’s school, the all-black Robert Russa Moton High School, for example, was literally falling apart. The ceilings were so cracked that Barbara and her classmates had to use umbrellas indoors when it rained. The toilets barely worked, and the one-story building had no gym, cafeteria, or science lab. 

The school was also severely overcrowded. It was built to hold 180 students, yet 450 were enrolled there. To create more space, some classes were held in a run-down bus in the parking lot or in shacks in the school­yard made of wood and paper. 

Meanwhile, the all-white Farmville High School just minutes from Moton had spacious classrooms, modern heating, and a real cafeteria.

When Moton parents and teachers complained to the school board, they were told that a new school would be built soon. It was clear, though, that “soon” would probably never come.

Barbara Johns, 16, stood waiting behind a deep-purple curtain on the stage of her school’s auditorium. What she was about to do could put her and her friends and family in danger. But she was not afraid. The curtain rose. A gasp rippled across the room as hundreds of students looked up at her with surprise. They had expected to see their principal, not her.

It was the spring of 1951 in the rural community of Farmville, Virginia. At the time, African Americans like Barbara were often treated with hatred and bigotry. In the South, Jim Crow laws and customs prevented many black people from exercising their right to vote. They also forced African Americans to use separate public facilities. That included parks, movie theaters, swimming pools, and water fountains (see “You Might Need to Know . . .,” below).

In Virginia and 20 other states, black students and white students also had to go to segregated schools. The schools for blacks and those for whites were supposed to be equal, but they never were.

Barbara went to the all-black Robert Russa Moton High School. It was literally falling apart. The ceilings were so cracked that Barbara and her classmates had to use umbrellas indoors when it rained. The toilets barely worked. The one-story building had no gym, cafeteria, or science lab.

The school was also very overcrowded. It was built to hold 180 students, yet 450 were enrolled there. To create more space, some classes were held in a run-down bus in the parking lot. Others were held in shacks in the schoolyard made of wood and paper.

The all-white Farmville High School was just minutes from Moton. It had large classrooms, modern heating, and a real cafeteria.

Moton parents and teachers complained to the school board. They were told that a new school would be built soon. But it was clear that “soon” would probably never come.

Growing Outrage

By all accounts, Barbara was a quiet, hardworking girl. She helped take care of her younger siblings and did chores on her family’s farm.  

But underneath her reserved demeanor was enormous strength—and growing outrage. She loved learning and was angry that she and her classmates didn’t have the school they deserved.

In the 1950s, challenging whites was dangerous. Yet Barbara wasn’t afraid. She believed it was up to her to do something to improve the conditions at her school. But what?

Barbara was a quiet and hardworking girl. She helped take care of her younger siblings. She also did chores on her family’s farm.

But underneath her quiet demeanor was great strength and growing outrage. She loved learning. She was angry that she and her classmates did not have the school they deserved.

In the 1950s, it was dangerous for black people to challenge whites. Yet Barbara was not afraid. She believed it was up to her to do something to improve the conditions at her school. But what?

YOU MIGHT NEED TO KNOW...

©Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos

Separate water fountains for whites and blacks in North Carolina in 1950

Note: Once a standard term for African Americans, colored is now considered dated and offensive.

“SEPARATE BUT EQUAL” was the legal principle used to justify racial segregation. It allowed for separate public facilities for blacks and whites, as long as they were equal. (In reality, they rarely were.) 

JIM CROW was the name for laws and customs that discriminated against African Americans in the South after the Civil War (1861-1865).

“SEPARATE BUT EQUAL” was the legal principle used to justify racial segregation. It allowed for separate public facilities for blacks and whites, as long as they were equal. (In reality, they rarely were.) 

JIM CROW was the name for laws and customs that discriminated against African Americans in the South after the Civil War (1861-1865).

A Bold Plan

One night, an idea came to her: a strike. If students refused to go to class, the school board would have to do something, wouldn’t it? 

Barbara sought out a few students who she considered school leaders, and told them about her idea. Then, on April 23, 1951, they put her plan into action. First, a student called the school’s principal from a pay phone. Disguising his voice, he said that some Moton students were loitering downtown and had been stopped by the police. The principal reacted predictably. Black students in trouble with the all-white police force was a serious matter. He ran to his car and sped from the school.

When he was gone, students delivered notes calling for an assembly. Barbara had written the notes and signed them “BJ”—the way Principal Boyd Jones signed notes. Barbara shared those initials.

When the curtain rose to reveal Barbara onstage instead of the principal, everyone was shocked. Then she began to speak. She talked about the inferior conditions of their school. She talked about the school board’s refusal to give them proper funding. She talked about how hard it was to learn in this environment. “Are we just going to accept these conditions?” she asked. “Or are we going to do something?”

When her stirring speech was over, the entire student body walked out in peaceful protest.

One night, an idea came to her: a strike. If students refused to go to class, wouldn’t the school board would have to do something?

Barbara approached a few students who she thought of as school leaders. She told them about her idea. On April 23, 1951, they put her plan into action. First, a student called the school’s principal from a pay phone. He disguised his voice. He said that some Moton students were loitering downtown and had been stopped by the police. The principal reacted the way they expected him to. Black students in trouble with the all-white police force was a serious matter. He ran to his car and sped from the school.

When he was gone, students delivered notes calling for an assembly. Barbara had written the notes and signed them “BJ.” That was how Principal Boyd Jones signed notes. Barbara had the same initials.

Everyone was shocked when the curtain rose to show Barbara onstage instead of the principal. Then she began to speak. She talked about the poor conditions of their school. She talked about the school board’s refusal to give Moton proper funding. She talked about how hard it was to learn in this environment. “Are we just going to accept these conditions?” she asked. “Or are we going to do something?”

When her stirring speech was over, the entire student body walked out in peaceful protest.

The Fight of Her Life

After the walkout, the local newspaper ridiculed the students, accusing them of looking for an excuse to skip class. The superintendent threatened to fire teachers and the principal.

Yet the students held firm. Barbara even called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organization working for equality for African Americans. She persuaded two NAACP lawyers to come to Farmville. The lawyers agreed to help the students if they demanded integration—that is, black students and white students attending school together—and if their parents supported them.

To Barbara, fighting for integra­tion was an unattainable goal—it seemed like reaching for the moon.

Still, at a meeting attended by most of the black community of Farmville, Barbara gave another, more rousing speech. The crowd erupted in joyous singing—and teary eyes. After much discussion, the community got behind the effort.  

But the fight was just beginning. After the lawsuit was filed, Barbara received death threats and was harassed by the Ku Klux Klan, a racist organization that burned a cross in her yard. The teen’s parents were so fearful for her safety that they sent her to live with relatives in Alabama.

After the walkout, the local newspaper made fun of the students. It accused them of looking for an excuse to skip class. The superintendent threatened to fire teachers and the principal.

Yet the students held firm. Barbara even called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). That organization works for equality for African Americans. She persuaded two NAACP lawyers to come to Farmville. The lawyers agreed to help the students if they demanded integration—black students and white students attending school together—and if their parents supported them.

To Barbara, fighting for integration was an unattainable goal. It seemed like reaching for the moon.

Even so, Barbara gave another rousing speech. It was at a meeting attended by most of the black community of Farmville. The crowd erupted in happy singing—and teary eyes. After much discussion, the community supported the effort.

But the fight was just beginning. After a lawsuit was filed, Barbara got death threats. She also was harassed by the Ku Klux Klan, a racist organization. Its members burned a cross in her yard. The teen’s parents were so fearful for her safety that they sent her to live with relatives in Alabama.

A Landmark Decision

What happened next exceeded all of Barbara’s expectations. The lawsuit went all the way to the highest court in the country, the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was bundled with similar lawsuits challenging segregated schools in other parts of the nation. The case became known as Brown v. Board of Education.

On May 17, 1954, in a momentous 9-0 decision, the Court ruled in Barbara’s favor, declaring segregated public schools unconstitutional. By then, Barbara was a college student in Georgia. When she heard the news, she shouted with joy.

But across the country, many white people reacted with anger. In Virginia, Barbara’s family home was burned to the ground, forcing her parents and younger siblings to move to Washington, D.C.

What happened next exceeded all of Barbara’s expectations. The lawsuit went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. That is the highest court in the country. There, the lawsuit was bundled with similar ones. All were challenging segregated schools in various parts of the nation. The case became known as Brown v. Board of Education.

On May 17, 1954, the Court ruled in Barbara’s favor in a momentous 9-0 decision. The ruling declared segregated public schools unconstitutional. By then, Barbara was a college student in Georgia. When she heard the news, she shouted with joy.

But across the country, many white people reacted with anger. Barbara’s family home in Virginia was burned to the ground. That forced her parents and younger siblings to move to Washington, D.C.

School Segregation Today

Nearly 65 years after the Brown ruling, many schools nationwide are still segregated—in practice, even if not by law. Experts say that’s largely because blacks and whites tend to live in separate communities and, therefore, attend separate schools. 

An Act of Courage

Over the next few decades, school districts gradually accepted the ruling and began to desegregate. In 1988, school integration reached an all-time high: Nearly 45 percent of black students in the South attended majority-white schools, up from 0 percent in 1954. 

Since then, however, progress has reversed. Today, the typical black student attends a school where only 28 percent of his or her class­mates are white (see graphs, above).

Still, Barbara’s act of courage had a lasting impact on the nation, helping to fuel a wave of sit-ins, boycotts, and marches that led to major gains in equality for African Americans. In fact, Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of the civil rights movement embraced nonviolent protests like Barbara’s as the best way to achieve equality. 

Over the years, Barbara’s story has not been widely told. But if you wander onto the Capitol grounds in Richmond, Virginia, you’ll find a statue honoring her—and the Moton students. Engraved on the statue are Barbara’s words: “It seemed like reaching for the moon.” 

Over the next few decades, school districts gradually accepted the ruling. They began to desegregate. In 1988, school integration reached an all-time high. Nearly 45 percent of black students in the South went to majority-white schools. That was up from 0 percent in 1954.

But progress has reversed since then. Today, the typical black student goes to a school where only 28 percent of his or her classmates are white (see graphs, above).

Still, Barbara’s act of courage had a lasting effect on the nation. It helped to fuel a wave of sit-ins, boycotts, and marches that led to major gains in equality for African Americans. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of the civil rights movement embraced nonviolent protests like Barbara’s as the best way to achieve equality.

Over the years, Barbara’s story has not been widely told. But if you wander onto the Capitol grounds in Richmond, Virginia, you will find a statue. It honors Barbara and the Moton students. Engraved on the statue are Barbara’s words: “It seemed like reaching for the moon.”

Write About It! Why might Barbara Johns have considered fighting for integration to be “like reaching for the moon”? Explain.

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