In a ceremony Thursday, the Ninth Street Office Building that is home to the Virginia Office of the Attorney General will be formally renamed in honor of Barbara Johns, who led the 1951 student walkout protesting overcrowded and inadequate conditions at Prince Edward County’s all-black Moton High School. Also this week, the Virginia House of Delegates is poised to pass a Senate resolution declaring April 23, the anniversary of the Moton strike, as Barbara Johns Day across the Commonwealth beginning next year.
The formative role Barbara Johns played not only in Virginia history but the national civil rights movement has begun at last to receive deserved recognition, both in school textbooks and public understanding. The statue of Johns on the Capitol grounds, and now the renaming of the former Hotel Richmond building and the declaration of Barbara Johns Day are all important milestones of this progress.
As a historian of Virginia and the civil rights era, I can’t help but marvel at this moment, and how much of the modern history of Virginia it touches. Occasionally as historians we encounter particular places which themselves illuminate history, their proximity to important events serving to remind and reveal to us the great societal transformations they have witnessed.
This is one such building and one such occasion. After Johns led the student protest at Moton, many of the students became plaintiffs in a court case that became part of the Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared segregation in public education unconstitutional. Of the five cases that comprised the Brown decision, the Prince Edward case was the only one initiated by students, and Moton students and their parents accounted for 75 percent of the plaintiffs in Brown.
In 1956, the Virginia General Assembly passed laws to thwart the Brown decision, what we now refer to as Massive Resistance. In 1958, Governor J. Lindsay Almond, who had defended the constitutionality of segregation before the Supreme Court as Virginia’s attorney general during Brown, shut down schools in Norfolk, Charlottesville and Warren County to stop integration. The courts declared the governor’s action unconstitutional. Undeterred, in 1959, Prince Edward County officials defied a court order to integrate and defunded the public schools. Schools remained closed for five years, longer than any other locality in the nation, until another Supreme Court decision reopened them in 1964.
Meanwhile, the legal and political force behind Massive Resistance derived from US Senator Harry F. Byrd’s Democratic party organization. That political machine’s unofficial headquarters was none other than the Hotel Richmond.
In recent history, this same building has housed the office of the Virginia Attorney General. This was an office that once embodied the use of state power as an instrument to defend inequality in the law and deny citizens their civil rights. Today, the Virginia Attorney General’s office is of course involved in contentious contemporary issues. But no one would dispute the role it played during the 1950s and 1960s to slow the progress of civil rights would be unimaginable today. Now, the attorneys and other professionals there will come to work each day in a building named for a 16-year-old girl whose right to an equal education their predecessors fought to deny.
In short, the story of the building at 202 North Ninth Street is in many ways the story of Virginia. And it serves to remind us that, for the messiness of democracy, Virginia has over long sweeps of time seen real progress.
Above all, I hope the occasion will serve to further educate the public about the story of Johns and her fellow students. Though Johns herself passed away in 1991, some of her classmates are still alive and remember the real fear and determination they felt during the strike and the subsequent school closings. They certainly knew what it meant to live in tumultuous times, when our democratic experiment felt divided and potentially fragile. Yet they made patient use of the tools of democracy – peaceful protest and legal action – that paved the way for meaningful change. In so doing, they helped ensure a better version of American democracy was passed down to the next generation.
About the Author
Dr. Larissa Smith FergesonLarissa Fergeson, professor of history at Longwood University, university liaison to the Moton Museum
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