On July 28, the Fairfax County School Board voted to rename J.E.B. Stuart High School in Annandale. The vote culminates a two-year debate over whether or not to change the name. On Oct. 26, the School Board faces another difficult vote in deciding what this new name will be.
I personally am inspired by Barbara Rose Johns, an extraordinary young woman whose story remains relatively unknown, but whose impact has reverberated throughout our country.
Barbara Johns, a 16-year-old student, attended Robert Russa Moton High School, the black high school in Farmville, Va. Conditions at Moton were unequal to the exclusively white high school across town. Moton, designed for 200 students, had over 400 students. The rooms were cold in the winter, and wet when it rained. Imagine trying to learn while holding onto your umbrella to keep your books, papers, and head from getting wet. The appeals of the parents for a larger, properly equipped school for their children were largely ignored, though the school board did erect tar paper shacks to handle the overflow of students.
I don’t know what triggered Barbara to take action for changes, or how she mustered the courage to fight the status quo, but fight back she did. On April 23, 1951, Barbara Johns recruited several of her classmates to help organize a student strike. She delivered a speech to the student body and rallied them to join in a demonstration in front of the county courthouse. The student leaders met with the School Superintendent but their request to address the unequal conditions of the black and white schools were ignored.
As the student strike went on, Barbara sought legal assistance from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who agreed to help fight for an integrated school system. Their suit in federal court was eventually joined with four other cases and deliberated by the U.S Supreme Court as part of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that declared “separate but equal” public schools unconstitutional.
In 2015, it was, again, teenagers who proposed changes in their school. Beginning with a film class video, students at J.E.B. Stuart High School began the campaign for a name change that led to the school board’s July vote. Like Barbara, they advocated for a change that they truly believed in that many others find difficult to accept.
Now, 66 years after Barbara Johns led her fellow students to strike for a better school, we have an opportunity to honor her for helping us divert from “separate but equal,” to striking a path that embraces diversity and equality. She exemplifies all we hope our students can become. My vote is for Barbara Rose Johns High School.
Hunter Mill District Supervisor