Moton Community Celebrates Naming of Richmond Building for Civil Rights Hero Barbara Johns
Farmville—Moton Museum officials commended Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s announcement to name a renovated Richmond state government office building for civil rights hero and Farmville icon Barbara Johns.
Moton Museum, Virginia’s only civil rights National Historic Landmark, is the site of the 1951 student walkout led by then sixteen-year-old Johns to protest overcrowded and inadequate facilities at their segregated school. The bold action resulted in a court case that the Supreme Court decided as part of its 1954 landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education, which declared segregation in education unconstitutional.
“Governor McAuliffe’s announcement acknowledges the statewide and national importance Johns and her fellow Moton students played in expanding equality for all Americans,” said Cameron Patterson, managing director of the Moton Museum. “Their action reveals the capacity of young people to use the tools of our democracy to make extraordinary change.”
Moton is the student birthplace of the civil rights movement, and the courage shown by Johns and her peers inspired a generation of students to take action across the South in the 1950s and 60s.
“Having a building in downtown Richmond named for Barbara Johns reminds Virginians that the civil rights movement did not just happen in the deep South, but here in Virginia as well,” said Cainan Townsend, interim director of education and public programs at the Museum.
“Barbara Johns made her bold move four years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, AL, and nine years before students at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro, NC, sat in at a Woolworth’s drug store lunch counter. The Moton students were civil rights pioneers.”
Johns’ family praised the decision to honor the civil rights leader, who died in Philadelphia in 1991.
“It is, indeed, an honor and words cannot adequately express the pride, exhilaration and excitement that we feel after hearing the news that … McAuliffe announced that an office building on Capitol Square will be named after Barbara,” said Joan Johns Cobbs, Barbara’s sister, in an interview with the Farmville Herald.
Joy Cabarrus Speakes, who was in 8th grade when she participated in the strike and became a plaintiff in the case that was part of the Brown decision, stated, “There are no words to express my appreciation and gratitude to Gov. McAuliffe for this recognition of Barbara. I feel there has been divine intervention ever since she led the strike on April 23, 1951. Therefore, this recognition, although decades later, proves that the stars aligned on time.
“We are now living in tumultuous times. The difference between a moment and a movement is sacrifice. Barbara, a sixteen-year-old, began this journey in 1951, and many sacrifices were made by her and others. Therefore, I trust that this generation will not quit, but stand strong and continue to demand social justice and human rights as she did.”
McAuliffe’s announcement caps a series of developments bringing increasing attention to the Moton story. Barbara Johns will be included in the social studies Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs) beginning in fall 2017.
“One of the driving passions of those of us involved in the Moton Museum is to have the story of Barbara Johns and the Moton School story better known. The naming of the Ninth Street Office Building will help us to do that,” said Dr. Larissa Smith Fergeson, Longwood University professor of history and university liaison to the Moton Museum. In 2015, Longwood and the Moton Museum forged a partnership to advance the museum’s work. “We anticipate increased interest in the Moton story and additional visits by school groups as a result of being included in the SOLs. It’s an exciting time for Moton.”
Last October, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine, the former Virginia governor who was the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, visited Moton on the day the vice-presidential debate was held at Longwood University. Kaine opened the debate by talking about Barbara Johns.
“This is a very special place. Sixty-five years ago, a young, courageous woman, Barbara Johns, led a walkout of her high school, Moton High School,” said Kaine. “She made history by protesting school segregation. She believed our nation was stronger together. And that walkout led to the Brown v. Board of Education decision that moved us down the path toward equality.”
The Moton Museum is housed in the former Robert Russa Moton High School, now a National Historic Landmark. The Museum features the auditorium where Barbara Johns inspired her fellow students to strike and a five-gallery exhibition that chronicles Prince Edward’s civil rights history from the 1951 walkout to the 1964 reopening of public schools after a five-year closure to avoid school desegregation. Visitor hours are Monday – Saturday, 12 noon – 4 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, go to www.motonmuseum.org or call 434-315-8775.