Barbara Johns Goes On Strike

Moton High School

Johns was a junior at the all-black Robert Russa Moton High School. She and her fellow students understood that the white schools were much better-equipped and higher quality compared to their school, which held 477 students despite being designed to hold 180. These additional students were accommodated with classes held in school buses, auditoriums, and temporary tar paper shack classrooms, nicknamed ''chicken coops.'' Resources were scarce, with one student recalling only one microscope for the entire biology class, and others describing hand-me-down textbooks and leaky roofs. Student body vice president John Stokes noted ''that by...providing schools that were grossly unequal to the ones white children attended, the white power structure was programming us to fail.''

Image of Moton High School
Robert R. Moton High School for African Americans, Plaintiffs’ Exhibits in Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, 1951, Records of District Courts of the United States, National Archives


Johns had a meeting with a few of her fellow students that fall and decided to hold a strike. After months of planning what they nicknamed their ''Manhattan Project,'' making pickets and brainstorming strategies, they held the strike on April 23, 1951. The students faked a phone call to the principal telling him his students were in trouble downtown. After he left the building, teachers received notes instructing them to bring their students to a school-wide assembly. Barbara Jones stood on the auditorium stage and, after asking the teachers to wait outside, implored the students to walk out and go on strike - and they did. The strike lasted for two weeks and had the support of Farmville's black community. After a white superintendent told them their facilities were just as nice as those of the white students, in the face of the school district's inaction, the students contacted NAACP lawyers Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson and took their case to court.