16-Year-Old Barbara Johns Leads a Student Strike


Portrait of Barbara Johns by Robert Shetterly, Americans Who Tell the Truth.

On April 23, 1951, 16-year-old Barbara Johns led her classmates in a strike to protest the substandard conditions at Robert Russa Moton High School (now a museum) in Prince Edward County. She decided:

It was time that Negroes were treated equally with whites, time that they had a decent school, time for the students themselves to do something about it. There wasn’t any fear. I just thought—this is your moment. Seize it!

As is explained on the Smithsonian website about the Brown v. Board case, “While many in the town called for patience, 16-year-old Barbara Johns refused to wait. With a few other classmates, she quietly organized the entire student body. On April 23, 1951, the principal was lured off campus, and all 450 students were called into the auditorium. After the students asked the teachers to leave, Barbara convinced her classmates that they should walk out until a new building was under construction.”

The protest led to a court case that became one of five cases that the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka when it declared school segregation unconstitutional.

Rather than desegregate, on June 26, 1959 the Prince Edward County, VA Board of Supervisors refused to appropriate money from the County School Board to the public schools. This refusal, which continued for five years, was part of the Massive Resistance Movement, and effectively closed the doors of the county’s schools. During these years black students were forced to find education wherever they could and white students attended new segregated private schools, the last of which began to accept black students in 1986. Read more in the NEH article, “Massive Resistance in a Small Town.”

Learn more about Johns and the portrait/poster at Americans Who Tell the Truth. We also highly recommend both books listed under related materials below.

Image used by permission of the artist. The portrait is available as a poster from Americans Who Tell the Truth.

Related Materials

There are 2 comments by other visitors:

  • The name of the town where Barbara Johns started High School and the strike was located in Farmville, Va, Prince Edward, Co.,VA. There was a new book published this year called, ” The Tar Paper School” for middle school readers.

    Response shared by Mary Lou Heintz — May 14, 2014 @ 4:40 pm

  • I’m astounded that this event is dated 1951!

    Response shared by Bingy — June 26, 2016 @ 8:14 pm

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