Barbara Johns, a sixteen year old student, staged a strike at Robert Russa Moton High School because of its deplorable conditions. One student John Stokes assisted Johns in the effort in 1951. He shares his story with me.
John Stokes grew up in the Jim Crow South. He attended Robert Russa Moton High School in Prince Edward County, Virginia. This was the only school for African American students in the entire county. It was a one-story school that was built to hold 180 students. However, by 1950 there were more than 450 students attending the school. The educational resources at Moton were few with only eight classrooms, an office, and an auditorium.
Stokes and classmate Barbara Johns recognized the inequalities between Moton and the white-only schools, and decided to do something about it. Together Stokes and John helped lead a strike by all the students in April 1951. All of the students walked out in the middle of class and refused to return until a new high school for African American students was built. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People encouraged the students to demand integration of all county schools instead. The U.S. District Court in Richmond rejected the lawsuit. The case went on appeal, and was combined with other lawsuits under Brown V. Board of Education. On May 17, 1954 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that public school segregation was unconstitutional.
Only a year after graduating from Virginia State University, Stokes went on to become Superintendent of Baltimore City Public Schools before retiring as principal in 1994.
How was the first Civil Rights Memorial initiated on Virginia State Capitol Grounds? First Lady Collis said during our interview that she was taking a stroll around Capitol Grounds with her daughter one beautiful day, Collis said her youngest daughter Eliza once inquired about the statues honoring white males during a walk around the square and wondered why none honored civil rights figures.
“And know-it-all mom that I am or not, I realized I really couldn’t explain why to my child,” and so I worked to rectify that” said Collis.
View the first Civil Rights Memorial on Virginia Capitol Grounds dedicated to the life and legacy of Barbara Johns, John Stokes and other students who staged a strike at Robert Russa Moton High School because of its deplorable conditions.