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Meet Barbara Johns, whose statue will replace Robert E Lee's in the US Capitol

Confederate General Robert E Lee's statue in the US Capitol was removed earlier this week. It will be replaced by one of Barbara Johns.

Meet Barbara Johns, whose statue will replace Robert E Lee's in the US Capitol
Image Source: Twitter/ SenSherrodBrown

Virginia's statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee at the United States Capitol will soon be replaced by one of Barbara Johns, who, at the young age of 16, staged a walkout at her high school to protest poor and unequal school conditions. Her small but meaningful initiative is one of the many actions that launched the desegregation movement. The process of replacing the statue will be initiated through the state's legislature and governor, CNN reports. Replacing Lee's statue is part of a larger trend to stop paying homage to those who perpetuated racism, violence, and hatred, particularly symbols of the Confederacy.

 



 

 

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam described the removal of Lee's statue as "an important step forward." He affirmed in a statement, "I look forward to seeing a trailblazing young woman of color represent Virginia in the US Capitol, where visitors will learn about Barbara Johns' contributions to America and be empowered to create positive change in their communities just like she did." As per law, all states within the country are permitted to donate two statues to the US Capitol for public display within the building as part of the National Statuary Hall Collection. The other statue donated to the collection by the state of Virginia is one of George Washington (who also owned slaves).

 



 

About Barbara Johns

Johns attended the all-Black Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia, at the time of the walkout in 1951. Presently, the school is a national historic landmark as well as a museum. It has been described as "the birthplace of America's student-led civil rights revolution." Unfortunately, the school lacked science labs, a gym, and a cafeteria when Johns was a student there. In addition to this, there was no plumbing, and most of the school equipment was old and shabby. Although it was built to accommodate 180 students, more than 400 used it. As a means to contain the overflow of students, the government had constructed several freestanding buildings of plywood and tar paper.

 



 

 

This was all in stark contrast to the nearby Farmville High School, reserved for an all-White student body. When Johns complained to a teacher about the status quo, they responded, "Why don't you do something about it?" So she did. On April 23, 1951, she led her classmates on a two-week strike. During this period, students refused to attend classes. The Virginia chapter of the NAACP took noticed of the demonstration and agreed to take on their case, challenging the constitutionality of segregation. Five years later, their case (Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County) was one of the five cases grouped together with the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional.

 



 

 

Shortly before the landmark ruling, Johns and her classmates were able to move into a new school with facilities just as good as that of Farmville's. While Prince Edward County, where Farmville High School was located, continued to fight desegregation, Johns went on to finish her schooling in Alabama. She graduated from Drexel University in Philadelphia and worked as a librarian after college. Though she staged her walkout several decades ago, her initiatives are celebrated to this day. In Farmville, a community library bears her name, and the building housing the Virginia Office of the Attorney General was named after her in 2017. Every April 23, the first day of the strike, Virginia celebrates Barbara Johns Day. Johns's US Capitol statue will be the latest addition to her list of achievements.

 



 

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