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More than 70 years after she inspired a nation to end school segregation, her statue will be installed inside the US Capitol, replacing Civil War Confederate commander Robert E Lee’s.

Barbara Johns took the stage of Robert Russa Moton High School, her segregated school in Prince Edward County, Virginia, in 1951. The 16-year-old, who had duped the student body into attending an illegal school assembly, spoke confidently. “There was no fear,” she’d later write. “I just thought you should seize this opportunity!”

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Johns urged her black classmates to join her in protesting the overcrowding at their school, which was built for 180 students but now held more than 475. She called for a student walkout in order to get a new building. But when she led the parade of teenagers out the school’s front door, she set in motion a chain of events that would soon change US history.

The protest prompted a lawsuit, which resulted in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which prohibited racial segregation in public schools. It also had a disastrous effect on the local level. Instead of allowing black and white children to attend classes together, Prince Edward County decided to close its public schools for several years.

Johns received death threats, forcing her to complete her high school education out of state. Her family’s home was later destroyed by fire.

Surprisingly, few people today know the name Johns. The teen was never as well-known as the civil rights pioneers who came after her, such as Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her bus seat four years later resulted in the Montgomery, Alabama, Bus Boycott, or John Lewis, who led protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the Selma-Montgomery march for voting rights.

I truly believe that this is where the modern civil rights movement began.

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However, history is starting to remember the student leader who died in 1991 at the age of 56. A statue of Johns will be installed in the United States Capitol building in Washington, DC, to represent her home state of Virginia. She will succeed Robert E Lee, the Confederacy’s Civil War commander. 

Johns has already been acknowledged by the state she once opposed. A sketch of her hangs in the governor’s mansion in Richmond, a statue anchors a civil rights memorial on Capitol grounds, and the building housing Virginia’s Attorney General’s offices bears her name.

The high school where Johns attended is now a museum and a National Historic Landmark in her hometown of Farmville. Visitors can now watch a film about Johns in the auditorium where she inspired her classmates to action. It has been restored to its original state, with a 48-star US flag displaying the number of states in the country in 1951. Other exhibits detail the poor living conditions endured by students, as well as the walkout. the court cases in which segregation was challenged, as well as the local decision to close the schools

“I truly believe that this is the birthplace of the modern civil rights movement,” said Cameron Patterson, executive director of the museum.

Most people’s understanding of the era, he claims, revolves around Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “I don’t see anything wrong with that, but we’re now beginning to elevate new stories.” And Johns’ story, he believes, is particularly worthy.

The plot revolves around Farmville, a 7,000-person town in south-central Virginia that is a historic tobacco port on the Appomattox River.

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The conditions at Johns’ segregated school were harsh, but not unusual. Due to overcrowding, some classes were held in three tar-paper shacks outside the main building. The rooms were poorly heated by potbellied stoves, and the roofs leaked. The school lacked a gymnasium, science labs, and a cafeteria. The textbooks were tattered relics from the white high school. Court documents later revealed that the school board spent slightly more than $300 per student at Moton, compared to nearly $1,700 per student at the county’s all-white high school.

“Barbara was upset about the state of our school, and we were all,” her younger sister, Joan Johns Cobbs, who was 12 at the time, told me. Nonetheless, she was unaware of any protest plans until her sister informed her. Still, she had no idea about the protest plans until her sister took the stage at her school on April 23, 1951. 

“I was in the third row, and I was so shocked that I slid down in my seat,” Cobbs, now 84, recalled. “I was scared. I knew there would be repercussions.”

Johns, along with a few other students, had enticed the principal away from campus with a false report of students causing trouble in town. Meanwhile, she circulated a note requesting that teachers remain in their classrooms and calling for a schoolwide assembly. The note was signed “BJ,” which was both Johns’ initials and the initials of the principal, Boyd Jones.

Black residents packed churches for community meetings in the days following the walkout, and Johns contacted the state chapter of the national civil rights organisation, the NAACP. However, the attorneys for the group stated that they were not interested in advocating for a new segregated school. They persuaded the Johns family and others to join them in a much larger battle: a federal lawsuit to end school segregation. “It felt like reaching for the Moon,” Johns wrote later. 

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The Prince Edward County lawsuit was eventually merged with similar lawsuits from Delaware, South Carolina, Washington, DC, and Kansas. The federal filing was named Brown v Board of Education after the Brown family of Topeka, Kansas, because the cases were listed alphabetically.

Three years later, the United States Supreme Court issued a landmark decision prohibiting school segregation, ruling that the concept of “separate but equal” schools was inherently unequal.

The decision sent shockwaves throughout the country. But it was devastating in Prince Edward County. Instead of integrating, white leaders pushed for “massive resistance” against integration for five years before finally closing its schools in 1959.

“I couldn’t make any sense of it,” Dorothy Lockett Holcomb, a black student about to enter fourth grade at the time, recalled. “I enjoyed school. It was a harrowing experience.”

While many white students attended newly formed private schools with state funding, the county’s 1,800 black students were forced to scramble. Some parents sent their older children away to further their education. Holcomb enrolled in a hastily organised class with a handful of other black children in a church basement miles from her home.

Two years later, Holcomb’s family rented and pretended to live in a run-down shack in a neighbouring county, allowing her to attend classes and eventually graduate as salutatorian.

However, many children, both black and white, fell between the cracks. “My fourth-grade classmate never returned. She was never given the opportunity to further her education “Holcomb stated. The names of the thousands of students affected by the closure are listed in a searchable digital kiosk at the Moton Museum.

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