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Kate Dudding: Voices From the Past: November, 2014

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This is the twenty-third issue of Voices From the Past. My goal for each issue is to publish some highlights of one of my historical stories as well as an update on my activities.

Barbara Johns – A Student Leader     


Look not at the face nor the color of a person’s skin,

But look at the heart which is deep within.

For the face and the skin will one day fade away,

But the deed of a good person will never decay.


That is a poem taught at Moton High School, the black high school in Farmville, VA, in the late 1940s and early 1950s.


This story is about the deeds of a number of those high school students.


It started with 16 year old junior Barbara Johns in September of 1950, when she was confiding in her favorite teacher:


“Miss Davenport – it’s just not fair.”


“What’s not fair, Barbara?”


“Miss Davenport, I missed the black bus yesterday. Mama works in Washington, DC during the week and Daddy is always out early working on the farm. So as usual, I was busy getting my three younger brothers and my sister ready for the bus, so busy that I forgot my own lunch. By the time I had run home and gotten my lunch and run back to the bus stop, the bus had already left.


“That’s a shame, Barbara, but why is it not fair?”


“Here’s why, Miss Davenport. While I was looking for someone to give me a ride to town, the white bus went by. It wasn’t full, but it didn’t stop and the white kids jeered at me. There they were going to their big new brick schools. All we have is one old brick building, with room for only 180 students, not hardly enough room for the 450 students who now attend our high school. None of the white schools have three tar-paper shacks for classrooms like we do for our overflow of students, tar-paper shacks with just one stove so the students near it are too hot, and everyone else wears their coats, tar-paper shacks that leak every time it rains. And our only bathrooms are in the brick high school.”


“I know all that, Barbara. You’ve known all that for a long time. Why don’t you do something, Barbara?”


Barbara slowly turned away, feeling dismissed by her teacher, who was usually so nurturing. But Barbara thought about it for days. Eventually she prayed, “God, please grant us a new school.” She realized that she needed help, from the seniors who were the school leaders, the twins Carrie and John Stokes. Barbara spoke with them a number of times. Finally she had this conversation:


Barbara: “I have a new idea. Our parents always ask us to follow them. But in some instances, a little child will lead them. We could make a move that would broadcast Farmville all over the world.”


Carrie: “How are we going to do that, Barbara?”


Barbara: “We could lead the entire Moton student body out on strike. And we’d stay out on strike until the school board agrees to build us a new high school.”


 Carrie and John Stokes agreed to join her. Together they created a committee of student leaders.


The strike started on Monday, April 23, 1951 when the principal was lured out of the school. After the principal left, message slips were delivered by other members of the strike committee to each classroom announcing a whole school assembly.


At 11 a.m., the 450 students and two dozen faculty members, minus the principal, were crowded into the auditorium (built for 180.) The curtains on the stage opened and revealed the members of the strike committee.


As usual, they recited the Pledge of Allegiance, the Lord’s Prayer and sang a song.


Then a member of the strike committee announced, “Teachers, would you please leave the auditorium? This is a meeting just for students. It would be best for you that you are not part of what we are going to do.”


The strike committee knew that the principal and the teachers could lose their jobs if they joined in the strike.


Then 16 year old junior Barbara Johns came to the podium.


“We need a new high school. You can see it right now, how we’re crammed in to this auditorium. Our principal, our teachers, our parents have all asked the school board for a new school. The answer is always the same – there’s not enough money.


We’ve checked the records. The white schools for the one thousand, four hundred white students in our county are valued at $1.2 million dollars. Each of those schools is brick with central heating and indoor plumbing.


The black schools for the two thousand Negro students in our county are valued at less a third of the value of the white schools. Only 1 of those schools is brick and has central heating and indoor plumbing – this one. But there is not enough money, they say, to build a new black high school, big enough for all of us.


We just want what the law promises – separate but equal facilities. That has been the law since the late 1800s.


Nothing will change unless we join together and demand a new school. We must walk out of school – go out on strike. That will get everyone’s attention.”


”Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar. All for this strike, stand up and holler! Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar. All for this strike, stand up and holler!”   They did – everyone stood up and hollered and followed Barbara Johns and the strike committee out of school.


Barbara and Carrie contacted the state chapter of NAACP in Richmond and persuaded them to come to Farmville and listen to their problems. The NAACP agreed to file a lawsuit demanding integrated schools, since winning lawsuits for separate but equal facilities had produced no changes.


188 students and parents decided to take the risk and sign the integration lawsuit. Two days later, a cross was burned on the grounds of Moton High School. Negroes in Farmville lost the ability to get store credit. The president of the PTA lost his job with the county. The principal lost his job. Barbara Johns’ parents were afraid for her safety. So they sent her to her uncle’s in Alabama for her senior year in high school.


The Farmville lawsuit was dismissed at the federal level. The NAACP lawyers, now including Thurgood Marshall, joined the Farmville case with four other cases for review by the Supreme Court. These five bundled lawsuits became known as Brown vs. Board of Education. Farmville’s lawsuit was the only case which was student led.


After the 1954 Supreme Court ruling, as you can imagine, Barbara Johns and the other 187 signers of the lawsuit were jubilant, so pleased and justifiable proud of themselves..


However, later that year, when Barbara Johns’ family was visiting relatives in DC one weekend, their house was burned down to just ashes. The family eventually moved to DC.



Let me tell you about Farmville, VA now.


The Moton High School, site of this student walkout in 1951, is a National Historic Landmark – VA’s only National Historic Landmark about the civil rights movement. It opened on the 50th anniversary of the student strike. It depicts one of the stories behind the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown V. Board of Education.


Look not at the face nor the color of a person’s skin,

But look at the heart which is deep within.

For the face and the skin will one day fade away,

But the deed of a good person will never decay.

Click here for more information about Barbara Johns.


News about me


On November 16, at 2 pm in the GE Theatre at Proctors in Schenectady, I will be one of the storytellers and one of the producers for Tellabration 2014:


We chose this year's theme, Bridging the Divide, since there seem to be many things dividing people. People through the ages have been concerned about these divisions and have created stories to draw people together. Four of the stories at our performance are personal stories, two are historical stories and the rest are folk tales and literary stories. As civil rights activist Alvah McSwain Lambert said, 'We are all one race - the human race."

More information on Tellabration


Other news - I finished my fourth CD - "Fighting For Our Rights: American Women Mid 20th Century" in July. The complete story of Barbara Johns is the first story on this CD. 


Thanks for reading this issue. I'll be sending you some more story highlights in a few months.


Kate   http://www.katedudding.com/   kate@katedudding.com


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