The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow A Century of Segregation
Jim Crow Stories
A National Struggle
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Jim Crow Stories

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Barbara Johns (1935 - 1991)
Barbara Johns Although Barbara Johns was born in New York City, her family was rooted in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Her father, Robert, and mother, Violet, had migrated north to find work, like so many other African Americans.

During World War II, Johns lived on a tobacco farm with her maternal grandmother Mary Croner. She picked tobacco in her free time and also worked in the country stored owned by her uncle, Reverend Vernon Johns, who was a strong influence on her life. He was a prominent member of the black community in Prince Edward County and had a reputation as a militant minister. Barbara's grandmothers on both sides of the family, Mary Croner and Sally Johns, were both strong women who were not afraid of whites.
We had talents and abilities ... that weren't really being realized.

In 1951, Barbara was a 16-year-old junior at the segregated Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia. Frustrated by the refusal of the local school board to build a new high school for black students, she decided that something had to be done to change the situation. The school she attended was constructed to hold slightly more than 200 students, and already had twice that number. Classes were held on school buses and in the auditorium. When parents appealed to the school board for a new school, the board put up several tar-paper shacks as a stopgap measure to accommodate the overflow of students. Johns met with several students she could trust and asked if they would help her organize a student strike; they agreed.

Media Feature - Listen to the Audio Their plan was to get the principal away from the building and then call the entire student body together to vote on the strike. They arranged to have someone report to the principal that some students were downtown causing trouble. When the principal left the building, the strike committee called all the students together in the auditorium and Johns revealed her plans for a strike. The students agreed to walk out and almost all of them received their parents' support.

They then asked the NAACP to represent and advise them. The NAACP agreed to help them as long as they were willing to sue for an integrated school, not simply one that was equal to the white school. At a community meeting, Johns silenced the few adults opposed to the suit. The parents overwhelmingly supported the strike. The Farmville case became of one of the five cases that the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka when it declared segregation unconstitutional in 1954.

--Richard Wormser

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At Barbara Johns' high school, teachers had to start the wood stoves that heated the classrooms -- a job janitors would do in white schools.
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