Biography: Barbara Rose Johns Powell

Civil Rights Activist, School Desegregation 1935–1991

“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!”

Barbara Rose Johns was born in New York City in 1935 to Violet and Robert Johns. She moved to Prince Edward County during World War II 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 Prince Edward County school which she describes (later in a memoir) as having inadequacies such as poor facilities, shabby equipment and no science laboratories or separate 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 in Prince Edward County, Virginia, 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 Spotswood Robinson and Oliver 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 U.S. Supreme Court reviewed in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka when it declared segregation unconstitutional.

Following the strike, Barbara was sent to live in Montgomery, Alabama, to finish her schooling. After graduating from high school, she attended Spellman 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.