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.”
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.
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.
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.
The walkout was Barbara’s idea, and it was a tough sell, says Stokes, who at the time was a member of the student council, editor of the school newspaper and president of the senior class.
“Barbara had been after me for a long time,” says Stokes. “When she came to me initially, I ignored her. I wasn’t going to jeopardize our education. But Barbara Johns said, ‘I’ll die for the cause,’ and I said either this girl is serious or she’s crazy.”
So he agreed to help lead the charge. For about six months they planned, enlisting students they felt they could trust and who could help rally other students.
Stokes and his schoolmates just wanted a better school building, but the NAACP refused to take their case unless they were prepared to strike a blow against segregation. It was a tough decision.
“We did not go on strike for integration. We went on strike for a better school,” Stokes says. “But something had to be done. We had to move forward, not backward.”
‘We did not go on strike for integration. We went on strike for a better school,’ Stokes says. ‘But something had to be done. We had to move forward, not backward.’
And so the students signed on to the fight to overturn Plessy.
Stokes had graduated from high school and was serving his country in the U.S. Army by the time news of the Brown decision reached him. He was pleased but not jubilant.
“I knew massive resistance would take place,” Stokes says. “I knew it was going to be something, and it wasn’t going to be pleasant.”
He was right. Five long years after the Brown decision, Prince Edward County schools remained segregated. A 1955 court ruling said that schools need only be desegregated “with all deliberate speed,” and school board members decided that meant they could drag their feet.
In 1959 county school officials dropped the pretense. Rather than integrate, the school board padlocked all public schools in the county.
The schools stayed closed for five years, until another Supreme Court ruling forced them to reopen in 1964. But thousands of children—blacks and poor whites—were deprived of an education. As a result, four decades later, in 2005, Virginia legislators set up a fund to pay for the education of those who had been denied one during the five-year closure of schools.
Stokes, a retired Baltimore public high school principal, is proud of the role that he and other students, like Johns, who died in 1991, played in Brown. Despite the educational challenges that black children face today—challenges that he describes as mostly ones of teaching quality and methodology—things are “much better” today.
“It’s better because we don’t have to ride the back of the bus. We can ride anyplace we want, but we have to seize the opportunity for ourselves,” says Stokes, who wrote a book—Students on Strike: Jim Crow, Civil Rights, ‘Brown,’ and Me—about his experience. “When opportunity knocks, we have to have our suitcases ready.”
Dara N. Sharif is a freelance editor and writer based in New York City whose work has been published by the Associated Press, the New York Amsterdam News and Scholastic News. Follow her on Twitter.