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. NATIONAL PARK SERVICE/NATIONAL ARCHIVES

The History

Prior to the Civil War, laws prohibited African Americans from being taught to read or write. The few who did gain an education—usually by way of sympathetic whites or religious groups—did so in private and in secret.

During Reconstruction, the federal government, through the Freedmen’s Bureau, set up schools to teach a newly freed people. Blacks also built and operated their own schools.

It was during this period that black colleges and universities such as Howard University and Morris Brown College were founded. But at the elementary and secondary school levels, resources—supplies, construction materials, teachers—were often in short supply.

The challenge of educating those who had been systematically denied schooling was further complicated by Plessy, in which the high court ruled that black Americans could be provided “separate” public accommodations from those of whites, as long as they were “equal.”

In public education, though, separate was never equal.

Conditions at schools for black children were often remarkably poor. Whites traveling south along Route 15 past Moton often stopped to gawk, mistaking the tar paper shacks for chicken coops.

“They had never seen anything like that before,” says Stokes.

The Walkout 

Eventually, with efforts to get a new school building going nowhere, Moton students, led by Stokes and a 16-year-old student named Barbara Johns, staged a two-week walkout on April 23, 1951.