Va. High School Students Challenged Segregation and Helped Pave the Way for Brown

Sixty years later, John Stokes recalls how he and classmate Barbara Johns took on “separate but equal” in a case that was part of the landmark Brown v. Board decision.

Tar paper shacks at the segregated R.R. Moton High School in Farmville, Va.
Tar paper shacks at the segregated R.R. Moton High School in Farmville, Va. NATIONAL PARK SERVICE/NATIONAL ARCHIVES

John A. Stokes, a 19-year-old high school senior, and his schoolmates were sweltering.

In the tar paper shacks they called classrooms, there was no indoor plumbing or running water. The tar paper provided no insulation and sometimes even failed to keep out the rain. Conditions weren’t much better during winter, when a single wood-stoked, potbellied stove in the corner of the “classroom” meant that students sitting closest to it boiled, while the ones nearest the window across the room froze.

Such was life in 1951 for students at the R.R. Moton High School for “colored” children in Farmville, Prince Edward County, Va. The county built shacks on Moton’s grounds because there were too few seats in the school’s brick building—which was originally built to accommodate 180 students, but where more than 400 children were enrolled.

Parents’ demands for a new facility for black students fell on deaf ears, while white students had their pick of five high schools, all with central heat, gymnasiums and cafeterias.

“I worked on a farm, and the barns the cows were in were more insulated than those three tar paper shacks,” recalls Stokes, now an 82-year-old lecturer and retired educator living in Lanham, Md. 

To protest conditions, Stokes and his schoolmates staged a strike and then called in the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund to represent their interests. Their actions set in motion Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, one of five lawsuits that would eventually be adjudicated by the Supreme Court as part of its landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, 60 years ago May 17.

Stokes is one of the little-known heroes of Brown.

It is seldom recalled, but Brown was so much bigger than a girl named Linda Brown from Topeka, Kan. The class action lawsuit involved dozens of families living in four states (Delaware, Kansas, Virginia and South Carolina) and the District of Columbia who sacrificed much to stand against legal, systemic racism.

 “Ours was a mind game,” Stokes says about why so few people know about the efforts of so many in challenging, and eventually putting an end to, the nation’s prevailing “separate but equal” doctrine, codified by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. “No violence took place; therefore it’s not important, and that’s a sad commentary. … We didn’t pick up a gun. We didn’t fight anyone. They don’t want to give us credit for having brains and the ability to out-think the white power structure.”