Chapter 1: Unequal CHAPTER 1 UNEQUAL FALL 1950
Barbara Johns had been thinking. A lot. That didn’t surprise anyone who knew her—her grandmother described the sixteen-year-old as “quiet, serious… seemed she had to do a lot of thinking.” Her mother said she was “deep.”1
But during the fall of 1950, Barbara was thinking about one thing in particular. One thing that had been bothering her for quite a while. When would something be done about her school—Robert Russa Moton High School in rural Prince Edward County, Virginia?
All the students at Moton High agreed that their school was too small and badly equipped. Parts of it were a damp, drafty, dilapidated disaster. Barbara knew how the other students felt because they frequently talked about it at lunch—a lunch they had to bring from home since the school had no cafeteria. It had no gym, either. Or locker rooms, or science equipment. R. R. Moton High School (named for an educator from the area who had led the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama) had been built at the southern end of the town of Farmville in 1939 and had space for 180 students. It was sturdy enough—brick with wood floors and tall windows. But by 1950, the student body numbered nearly five hundred, two and a half times the school’s capacity. Under pressure from parents and the principal, the county school board had come up with a “temporary” solution: three rickety wooden outbuildings covered in a heavy paper coated with tar—the thick, black liquid used in roadbuilding. Often seen on chicken coops, the tar paper was supposed to keep rain out, but it didn’t do its job very well at all. And it seemed that when members of the school board said “temporary,” they actually meant “permanent.”
Students in an English class at R. R. Moton High School, c. 1951. The stove that heated the “temporary” classroom often sent cinders flying.
Not only did the “tar paper shacks”—as everyone called them—leak, but their only heat came from woodburning potbellied stoves at one end of each long, low structure. In winter, students sitting near the stoves felt ready to combust, while students in the back of the room wore their heavy coats during class. Hot coals sometimes jumped out of the stoves onto the wood floor, forcing whoever was nearby to scoop them back into the stove before the building caught fire.2
Students from other schools laughed and said the shacks looked like chicken coops. It was embarrassing. Worse, the shacks didn’t come close to solving the overcrowding problem.
Several teachers had to meet their classes in the main building’s auditorium—really just a big room with folding chairs and a small stage—where the noise of many classes going on at once was terrible. Plus, the building was designed so that students moving from one wing of the school to the other had to walk through that auditorium, adding to the distractions. Some teachers taught classes in old, abandoned school buses parked beside the building. Others met their students outside unless it was raining.
Barbara and the other students complained about more than the actual buildings. There weren’t enough books to go around in most classes, and the books the school did have were old, out-of-date, and worn. Classroom equipment—desks, chairs, blackboards, and the rest—was old and worn too. And there were never enough basic supplies like paper or chalk.
Even getting to school was a challenge. Students came late or missed whole days because the secondhand school buses the county provided broke down frequently. Other children had to walk miles from the farms where they lived because the county didn’t provide a school bus for them at all. John Stokes and his twin sister, Carrie, were eager to learn. Eager enough to walk four and a half miles along the gravel shoulder of a very busy highway to get to the overcrowded, poorly supplied Moton High School every day, no matter what the weather was like. Four and a half miles—at least an hour and a half of walking each way—to get to classes in leaky, temporary buildings. John Stokes commented that the cows he milked had nicer buildings than the students at Moton did.3
Imagine the determination it took for a young person to face that kind of discomfort, difficulty, even danger, every day just to go to school. For some students who didn’t plan to go to college or trade school, a high school diploma didn’t seem worth the terrible effort. Many were tempted to drop out, and who could blame them? Barbara Johns, who wanted very much to go to college, never considered quitting. But the idea of two more years at Moton was depressing, especially when after-school activities took her to other counties and she saw what their schools were like.
Barbara was a good student and a generally cheerful, rather quiet, person. But as much as she liked and respected her teachers and the principal, and as much as she enjoyed learning, R. R. Moton High School was wearing her down. It was wearing everyone down.
At sixteen, Barbara looked younger than her age. She had wide-set, almond-shaped brown eyes; dark, shoulder- length hair; and a big smile that lit up her whole face. She was soft-spoken, but not afraid to say what she thought, and she was comfortable talking to adults, the school music teacher in particular. Miss Inez Davenport made Barbara feel like she could tell the teacher almost anything. One day, when the situation at Moton High School had really gotten to her, Barbara told Miss Davenport just how fed up she was. It wasn’t fair, she said, that she and all the other students had to attend a school with such dreadful equipment and miserable facilities.
Barbara felt bolder as she talked to Miss Davenport that day, and finally said that she was “sick and tired” of being stuck with such a school. Miss Davenport thought for a minute and then said, “Why don’t you do something about it?”4
Was her favorite teacher dismissing her? Barbara wondered. Didn’t Miss Davenport care? Hurt and unable to think of anything to say, Barbara turned and left the room. But she couldn’t push Miss Davenport’s words out of her head. Was it possible that the woman wasn’t being sarcastic? Could she have meant it? Maybe there was
something Barbara could do. But what?
Barbara thought long and hard about what action she could take, but no ideas came to her. Parents had argued with the school board year after year, pleading for better facilities for their children. Principal M. Boyd Jones had repeatedly asked the school superintendent to do something. The school board made promises and more promises, but nothing ever happened. If parents and the school principal couldn’t get the school board to make improvements, how could a sixteen-year-old?
The Johnses’ family farm lay in the soft hills southwest of Farmville, where dark green pine forests stood out against the yellower green of tobacco fields and pastures. Each spring brought a thousand more shades of green. Barbara liked to spend quiet time in her favorite shady spot in the woods when she could get away from her younger siblings. There she could let go of her frustration and imagine miracles. She wrote later about her dreams that a wonderful rich person had swooped in to fix everything at school. Or that a huge storm had destroyed the school, and then out of the wreck “rose a magnificent building and all the students were joyous.…” But she knew no miracle was likely. While she fed the pigs or collected eggs or did any of her many chores, she brooded about how awful her school was. What made the situation especially painful was that just down the road from R. R. Moton High School stood Farmville High School, a well-built, well-equipped, well-supplied, spacious public school—a school she and John Stokes and the others weren’t allowed to attend.5
The days went by, and still Barbara had no idea what she or anyone else could do to convince the Prince Edward County School Board to repair or replace the school. She was busy with homework and with the drama club, the chorus, and the student council. Whenever she had any free time, she read. And read. Every kind of book she could find. She wasn’t allowed to go to the public library in town, but her uncle Vernon Johns, who lived in Alabama, kept shelves and shelves of books in her grandmother’s house. He encouraged Barbara and the other children to make use of those books. They took her to places where roofs didn’t leak and schoolbooks weren’t worn. They helped fuel her dreams. But finding time to read was hard.
Violet Johns, Barbara’s mother, worked for the US Navy in Washington, DC, nearly two hundred miles from home. The family needed the money she earned there, so Mrs. Johns stayed in DC during the week and came back to Prince Edward County on weekends. With Barbara’s father, Robert, working the farm, it was up to Barbara to care for her younger sister, Joan, and their three brothers. She fixed their breakfasts, packed their lunches, made sure they were clean and dressed, and got them onto the school bus every morning. She cooked dinner every night.
One morning, Barbara struggled to get the children out the door and down the hill to meet the bus on time. Only when they got to the stop did she realize that she’d left her own lunch in the house. She ran up the hill and grabbed it but couldn’t get back before the bus came, and her siblings couldn’t get the driver to wait. Barbara, a student who never missed class and never “ditched” school, had no way to get there. It was much too far to walk—some fifteen miles. She waited, hoping a neighbor on the way to Farmville might come by and give her a lift. Then she saw a big yellow school bus coming. She knew where it was going, and she knew what was about to happen.
The half-empty bus was on its way right past Moton High School to Farmville High School—the one with the cafeteria and gym and science labs and enough books and heat and… The bus went by. The driver would not stop for Barbara, though it was obvious where she was headed. She wasn’t a bit surprised.
Barbara Johns had always known why her school’s facilities were overcrowded and pathetic and the other school’s facilities were very good. She knew why the school board would do nothing to improve Moton High School. And she knew on this morning why she couldn’t get a ride to school on a half-empty bus. The students on that bus were White, and she was Black. They attended the White high school, and she attended the Black high school. In Prince Edward County’s White-run school system, their education mattered. Hers didn’t.
The inequality that hit Barbara Johns so forcefully that day in late 1950 wasn’t new. The differences between Prince Edward County’s Moton High School and its Farmville High School weren’t new either. And they weren’t unusual in the United States. All over the South, states and counties required separate schools for White and Black children—schools with the same kinds of differences Barbara saw in Moton High and Farmville High. Generally, White children went every day to tidy buildings that were far better kept and better supplied than Black schools were. Northern states didn’t have laws separating White and Black students, yet those students often ended up in very different circumstances anyway. It had gone on for generations. But on this morning, as Barbara Johns watched the White students’ bus pass her by, she knew it was time for change.
The auditorium at Farmville High School, c. 1951.
Later she wrote,
Right then and there, I decided something had to be done about this inequality.… All day my mind and thoughts were whirling and as I lay in my bed that night—I prayed for help. That night… a plan began to formulate in my mind.6
Barbara knew that any demand for a better school building was risky—especially in a place like Prince Edward County. She worried about how the county’s White leaders would react to such a demand. Still, she had to try. She had to try for herself and for her younger sister and brothers. But as she considered her plan, Barbara Johns had no idea that she was about to make history. No idea that her plan would lead to years of struggle for something much bigger than she imagined. She may not have thought about it, but Barbara Johns was going up against more than three hundred years of Virginia history, of American history.
The auditorium at R. R. Moton High School, c. 1951.
Inequality and injustice in Prince Edward County had started long before public schools existed and more than one hundred fifty years before there was a United States Constitution. That’s a lot of history. But the story of Prince Edward County’s schools in the twentieth century doesn’t make sense without starting at the beginning. History is like that. One event connects to another and then another. Those connections help to explain the past and much of the present. Many parts of United States history make Americans proud. But sadly, inequality is also a part of the history of the United States. It’s an ugly and difficult part of history. But it’s a part of history every American needs to know.