On July 21, 2008, Governor Timothy M. Kaine officially unveiled the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial on the grounds of the Virginia State Capitol at an event attended by more than 4,000 people. The sculpture by artist Stanley Bleifeld portrays Barbara Johns, who, when she was sixteen years old, led a student walkout from the woefully inadequate high school for African Americans in Farmville, Virginia. In addition to Johns, the sculpture depicts other students, community members, and the lawyers who championed their case. The memorial is located near the entrance to the Executive Mansion in Capitol Square.
The student strike at Robert Russa Moton High School in Prince Edward County played an important role in ending racial segregation in United States public schools. The school was designed to house 180 students and was a simple, one-story brick building. The school's enrollment quickly outgrew the original building, reaching 450 students by 1950. The white school board's response to repeated petitions for a new school was the construction of three large plywood buildings covered with tarpaper. Unsatisfied with the buildings, Barbara Johns and other students began a strike on April 23, 1951, keeping nearly 400 students out of school for two weeks.
Also portrayed on the sculpture is the Reverend L. Francis Griffin, a Prince Edward County civil rights activist, who supported and encouraged the students and their parents. The students asked Richmond civil rights attorneys Oliver W. Hill and Spottswood W. Robinson III to sue for equal facilities, but instead they decided to bring suit to end segregation. On May 23, 1951, Robinson filed Dorothy Davis et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, which was later incorporated into the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas Supreme Court of the United States case.
The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision banned “separate but equal” schools for blacks. Despite the ruling, Prince Edward County remained segregated as state government officials in Virginia attempted to avoided desegregation at all costs. White leaders in Virginia led a “massive resistance” movement, threatening to close public schools rather than desegregate. In 1959, the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors refused to provide money for any school protesting segregation. Without appropriate funds for public schools, many of the county schools closed that year. African American students had to attend schools in surrounding counties, leave the state to obtain an education elsewhere, or miss out on education altogether. Many white students attended private schools that opened in order to avoid desegregation. Five years later, Prince Edward County reopened its public schools following a court order. Sadly, many African American residents lost five years of education.
The memorial's creator, Stanley Bleifeld, won the commission for the sculpture through a competitive process. An internationally famous artist, Bleifeld was raised in Brooklyn, New York. He attended Temple University in Pennsylvania. Although trained in painting, early in his career he turned to sculpture. Bleifeld received numerous public commissions, most notably for the The Prophets, at Vatican Pavilion, for the New York World's Fair in 1964 and for the Lone Soldier a larger-than-life sculpture that is a part of the United States Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C. Bleifeld died in 2011.
1. Who is depicted on the Virginia Civil Rights Monument and what roles did they play in Virginia's civil rights movement?
2. What conditions did Barbara Johns and her classmates protest at their school in Prince Edward County?
3. How did Virginia evade and delay school integration?
Barbara Johns was sixteen years old when she initiated the boycott at Moton School. Who are some of the other young people who led the civil rights movement?
Stokes, John A. Students on Strike: Jim Crow, Civil Rights, Brown, and Me: A Memoir. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2008.