Living With The Legacies Johns Family Members Reflect On History

March 2, 2001

Story by Ken Woodley of the Farmville Herald

Hampden-Sydney – Standing at the lectern Wednesday night, Rev. William Powell looked at those gathered to hear his words and hoped two things would happen:

The 80-year old wanted his audience to leave Hampden-Sydney College at the end of his remarks with a “sense of the presence of the eternal God, our Father.”

And, he would tell them, “I’m hoping all of us will nourish the dreams that we have.”

Those, Rev. Powell believes, are two of the legacies of the late Barbara Johns who, as a 16-year old student at R.R. Moton High School in Farmville, led a student strike on April 23, 1951 for better school facilities for black students.

That student action four years before Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a bus in Alabama has been called the birth of the civil rights movement. It led to the county’s inclusion in the Brown V. Board case and the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision against segregated public schools.

Rev. Powell’s reflections on Barbara Johns came from firsthand experience. He is the husband of the late civil rights heroine who lived with her husband in Philadelphia and taught for 24 years in the city’s public school system. She died in 1991.

The program “Remembering Barbara Johns” was sponsored by H-SC and was attended by several members of the Johns family, including the sister of Ms. Powell, Joan Johns Cobb, who spoke of the pain she and other black students from that era still feel as the community and nation wrestled with the end of segregation.

A Quiet Heroine

It was fitting that Rev. Powell and Barbara Johns married between an old year and a new one – pledging their vows on New Year’s Eve as 1953 became 1954 – because Ms. Johns helped usher the nation from a policy of racial segregation to one of integration in public education.

But Barbara Johns Powell did not speak to her husband and children about her role in the civil rights movement, family members say. It was not until her handwritten notes were found that many were given a glimpse into what had gone through her mind as she contemplated how to respond to separate and unequal school facilities in Prince Edward.

“The amazing thing about Barbara is that she never discussed this and we sometimes wonder whether she knew really what she had done and what she had accomplished,” Rev. Powell said. “But her own children were unaware of her own involvement… She was a very private person. She was not out to seek glory. All she wanted was a school that was equal to the whites. That’s all. And I think the life she lived after that proves that she was a selfless individual.”

That life was centered on being the best mother and wife and school teacher she possibly could. The history-launching events of 1951 were not the topic of family discussions as she raised her children and supported her husband’s ministry in Philadelphia.

“The strange thing about this was this writing lay at home on top of the bureau from about 1990 until 1999 when I left Philadelphia,” said Rev. Powell, who has retired to the Cullen area. “My daughter discovered it, had it (copied) and gave every member of the family a copy of it. Isn’t that strange that that length of time would transpire and that nobody would even recognize that it was there and all of a sudden it comes to light?”

The entire transcript of the notes related to her decision to lead a student strike was published in The Herald last September, a fact Rev. Powell made a point of acknowledging Tuesday night.

“Now you explain to me how a 16-year old would develop that kind of spirit, that kind of attitude, and all she was concerned about was that everything would be made equal,” Rev. Powell said. “And that is the heritage she leaves us.”

One of faith in God and the conviction to follow inspired dreams.

As his eyes scanned the audience, Rev. Powell said, “there are some young people here this evening and I’m hoping that all of us will nourish the dreams we have and then stick to them. Don’t let anybody drive you away from that dream, but hold on to it because you will find the power and the strength to make that dream come true.”

And that power and that strength can be God-given, he believes.

“There is no play, there is no movie, there is no drama that does not have His direction, And we may think that we are undirected in this world and in this life but I’ve got news for you – we are directed and nothing happens, nothing occurs without the knowledge and inspection of God.”

It was after praying in her bed one night in 1951 that the idea of a student strike dawned on Barbara Johns. “The plan was given to her (by God).” Rev. Powell said. “She implemented it right away.”

It was her dream, she wrote, that once people saw the students marching down the street, once people heard of their plight, that they would immediately see to it that a new school was established.

“See how naive she was?” asked Rev. Powell. “She had no idea of the furor that it would create and, in fact, stayed in creation until 1964 (when county schools re-opened after closing in 1959). It was contention all along the way. That was not her plan. Her plan was hoping they would get a new school building because of the inequalities of the times.”

As a teenager, Barbara Johns had “faith in the white people,” Rev. Powell said. “She felt they would join with (students) and build a new school, and unfortunately all of this ugliness came out.

“Yes,” he continued,” it is hurtful … but we have to go on.”

The Pain Is Very Real

The pain is still very real, Joan Johns Cobb told those attending the program in the Parents and Friends Lounge at H-SC. “It’s still very painful today to talk about it. It’s very painful and I think that’s why you don’t get some of the original students who were involved in the strike, who helped Barbara with it, you can’t get them to come back and talk about it because it is still very painful,” said Ms. Cobb, who now lives in New Jersey.

“I just can’t tell you how painful it is. I imagine every student who went through it is still suffering inside,” she said. “In order to understand how deep that hurt is you would have to have experienced it … We can’t almost put it into words how deeply we were hurt and still, to this day, it hurts. I just can’t describe the depth of the hurt.”

A member of the audience had asked if any former students would be willing to share their feelings and along with Ms. Cobb, Willie Shepperson – in school at R.R. Moton High School on the day of the strike – did so. “Prince Edward has never given me any remorse,” he said. “Nobody ever said we’re sorry for what we did. Never said it.”

Both he and Ms. Cobb asked that the truth be told about what happened. “Help us tell the truth,” he said, when someone asked if there was anything anyone could do to help ease the pain.

No Enmity

Though “indeed saddened” by the county’s school-closing response to Brown v. Board, Barbara Johns Powell harbored no enmity towards whites, her husband added.

“No, not at all. She never spoke disparagingly of any white person,” Rev. Powell told two reporters following the program.

As a teenager in Prince Edward, Rev. Powell had told his audience, Barbara Johns “never expected” the backlash that occurred. “It caught her unawares, and it’s just unfortunate.”

The he added, “You know, growing up, growth sometimes is painful and we just don’t like to talk about it.”

As the discussion continued during the question and answer period following his prepared remarks, Rev. Powell said, “one thing I have determined in life and that is you have to leave the hurts behind. Life goes on and you are faced with different challenges each and every day and you’ll always find somebody in society that doesn’t like you. If you stand on your head, you will not please them. So what do you do? Do you just lull around and fail to achieve to what you can accomplish because this individual doesn’t like you? No, indeed. You just use what tools you have to make the best out of your existence.”

Moments later, Ms. Cobb stood again and said, “My deal brother-in-law, you did not grow up here in Virginia so you do not realize what we are trying to say as far as the depth of the pain that we are suffering. And I think we have moved on. However, it’s not gone … It is still deep … Don’t try to pretend it never happened because that’s the feeling we get to this very day, that nothing every happened here like that and that’s why we can’t get over the pain.”

Following the program, Rev. Powell told two journalists that he “fell in love with Virginia by going to school in Richmond” and so understood “some of the hurt they’re talking about.”

He believes the anti-integration actions of some whites were motivated by fear of economic repercussions.

“The white people of that time they were afraid of their jobs and when you have a whole unit that believes the Negro is this, that, or the other, you go along with it or you will be ostracized,” he told reporters, “So I can understand the plight of many whites.”

To follow Barbara Johns and the civil rights movement, or not.

To the crowd at H-SC Tuesday night, Rev. Powell said, “We need more Barbara Johns. There are many areas in our society … Those of you who have dreams, dream the right way. And dream always in the benefit of your fellow man. You have got to be selfless in this.”

Quoting a verse from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – “Why, if the soul can fling the dust aside and naked on the air of heaven rise” – Rev. Powell ended the evening saying, “If we can separate ourselves from the physical man and allow that spirit to live and exercise, what a wonderful life we’d have. Barbara died happy. She was thankful … I cherish the years God granted us together.”

H-SC English professor George Bagby, who opened and closed Tuesday night’s program, told the crowd that “I do think the spirit of God works through a session like this. We would all be a lot better off if we had more of these sessions, sit down, look at each other and say what’s on our minds. These are painful things, not just for the people who speak them, but for those of us who hear them.”

Were it not for her handwritten notes, composed late in life for a filmmaker who’s project was left unfulfilled because of Ms. Powell’s death, her words about the moment and movement in American history she helped shape would have remained silent.

Her actions would have spoken for themselves.

Rev. Powell told those listening Tuesday night that it takes “a giant to stand up and say, ‘This is wrong.’ And we don’t have too many giants.”