“White and colored children shall not be taught in the same school.”

The Virginia constitution of 1902 sanctioned the creation of separate and unequally financed schools. Moton’s facilities paled in comparison to nearby Farmville High School, located just a few blocks away. Moton lacked a cafeteria, a gymnasium, and an auditorium with fixed seats. Students endured cast off books and lab equipment from Farmville High. One Moton football player recalled wearing hand-me-down shoes and uniforms.

Overcrowding exacerbated the inadequate facilities. County officials dragged their feet on building a larger school; instead, they constructed temporary classrooms that passersby mistook for chicken coops. The roofs of the buildings leaked, and students recall having to sit with umbrellas open in the classroom when it rained. Each building was heated with a potbelly stove. Those students who sat close to the stoves were too hot, while those who sat far away shivered in their winter coats from the cold.

Despite these inadequacies, Moton students thrived in a nurturing and supportive environment created by their teachers, parents, and church communities. Teachers held them to high standards, encouraged them to pursue extracurricular activities, and challenged them to seek a college education. Parents, who lobbied the school board consistently for a new school, sought to improve educational opportunities for their children. Their churches taught them to have faith and believe in their own capacity for change. Inspired by America’s victory in World War II and by the presence of veterans at their school, Moton students had rising expectations. They aspired to achieve the American dream and to be equal citizens in our democracy.




Founded on the premise that all men are created equal, America, throughout its history, struggled to live up to that ideal.

In the Constitution,

the Founding Fathers created three separate and unequal groups:
“free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years” (those primarily of European origin)

“Indians not taxed” (those native to North America)

“all other persons” (those of African origin)
After the Civil War, the 14th Amendment reduced these groups to two:
“persons” (those of European, African and mixed origin)

“Indians not taxed” (those native to North America)

14th Amendment

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
—14th Amendment
Plessy v. Ferguson | 1896
The case known as Plessy v. Ferguson, a Supreme Court ruling issued in 1896, confirmed the doctrine of separate but equal. While it related to segregation in railroad transportation, the court found that the practice could be extended to other areas of life, including education, as long as the facilities and services were equal in quality.


In Farmville, parents, ministers, and other community leaders established a tradition of agitating for improved educational opportunities by lobbying county officials and by contributing their own money and labor to provide buildings, teachers’ salaries, and school transportation.

By 1939, citizen efforts resulted in the construction of the present Robert Russa Moton High School, one of twelve such high schools in the rural parts of the state. However, Moton High School was inadequately designed from the start, and its facilities paled in comparison to the much larger and better equipped Farmville High School built the same year.
the general assembly shall provide

“The general assembly shall provide... a uniform system of public free schools, and for its gradual, equal and full introduction into all the counties of the state...”

W.E.B. Du Bois is well known as one of the influential early leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), but he also had a close relationship with Farmville and Prince Edward County. As a social scientist, he visited Farmville and recorded his findings in “The Negroes of Farmville, Virginia: a social study” published by the U.S. Department of Labor in 1898.

“The town of Farmville has no school for colored children, but sends them to the district school just outside the corporation limits. It is not at present, if the general testimony of the townspeople is to be taken, a very successful school. It is practically ungraded, the teachers are not particularly well-equipped."

“White and colored children shall not be taught in the same school.”

Farmville High School

The school consolidation movement meant that schools were getting larger and better equipped during the period between the World Wars. Farmville High School was built in 1938 after a fire destroyed the previous building. The large new building brought together students from several smaller high schools around the county and, together with the small, rural high school at Worsham, was intended to serve both the town and the farming areas outside its borders, using school buses for transportation.

T.J. McIlwaine

“When I first came here, there was only one colored school in the county that went beyond the earliest grades,... I was concerned about this situation. The negro schools had a shorter term. The attendance was very poor.”

TJ McIlwaine - larger

Thomas J. McIlwaine (1891–1986) became the superintendent of the Prince Edward County Public Schools in 1918 and served until his retirement in 1965.

To Make a
Successful School

“I have found that a great deal more is accomplished when one does not permit himself to dwell overmuch upon the difficulties and discouragements which he encounters, but keeps constantly before his mind those forces and influences which make for the removal of the very obstacles which often hamper his progress.”

Martha Forrester

As a founder and president of the Council of Colored Women, Martha E. Forrester worked diligently to raise money and lobby county officials to improve educational opportunities for the children of Prince Edward County. Forrester and other members of the Council succeeded in convincing the County to construct the R. R. Moton High School in 1938.




The teachers, families, and churches of the Moton students created a nurturing environment and community within the school. Despite the crowded conditions and limited resources, Moton teachers and students maintained a vibrant school culture, one that encouraged excellence and aspiration.

“The black community in Farmville in the ’40s was an ambitious community. The public school system was a great engine of achievement and ambition on the part of the students."


To deal with the overcrowding at Moton High School, county school officials constructed three temporary classroom buildings in 1948; one sat on the front lawn of the school, while the other two sat behind. The buildings, sided with inexpensive rolls of tar paper, had a projected life span of five years. Drivers passing by thought they were looking at chicken coops, instead of school buildings. As the buildings quickly deteriorated, they became known as the “Tar Paper Shacks.”

“Sure we were crowded. You know the Auditorium? Well, we held two or three classes in the auditorium most of the time, one on the stage, and two in the back. We even held some classes in a bus.”

“1944, ’45, ’46, ’47, ’48, we were going through this process [of trying to build a new school]. We even went so far as to go to the board with a three-point plan. And I remember very specifically one board member looked at it and said if we build a school like that, every Tom, Dick, and Harry will be going to school. And that was the first time it dawned on me that there wasn’t any intention for us to go to school.”


Moton School faculty provided a tightly knit school community for the students. The teachers presented a caring and helpful atmosphere characterized by strict discipline, respect for learning, and high expectations, all designed to help the students take care of themselves in the larger world.

M. Boyd Jones

Moton High School Principal M. Boyd Jones was born in Gloucester, Virginia in 1909. A WWII veteran, Jones held a master’s degree in science education from Cornell University and had taught elsewhere before taking the principal’s job in 1947. As a school board employee, he was placed in an awkward position by the student strike. Jones later said that he had been ’training them for four years’ to stand up for their rights. ‘We taught them to become dissatisfied with mediocrity, with hand-me-downs.’


March 19, 1951

On a rainy and foggy day, the school bus traveling to Pamplin, in the western part of the county, stopped as it crossed the railroad tracks at Elam. A train hit the rear of the bus, shearing it off.

Of the twenty-three Moton students on board, some were thrown off, ten were hospitalized, and five lost their lives. This event reinforced the students’ awareness that the county’s educational facilities were not acceptable and certainly not “equal.” One month later, Barbara Johns and the rest of the strike committee committed to striking for a new school.

“Their loss lies heavily on our hearts.”

A Transcription of the Farmville Herald Article | Tuesday, March 21, 1951

“Their loss lies heavily on our hearts,” Superintendent T. J. McIlwaine told the parents and a throng that overflowed the church and grounds of the Baptist Church, near Elam, of which the five children were active members.

School Board Chairman M. R. Large joined the superintendent in offering the condolences of all residents, and assurance of help.

The five were laid to rest on a hillside overlooking the fields and woods of their farm homes, following services in which their church dedication and school accomplishments were praised by their pastor, their teachers and schoolmates.

The R. R. Moton High School Chorus sang an appropriate hymn, and Helen Marshall and J. L. Mealey, representing R. R. Moton and First Rock schools, spoke of the regard in which the five were held.

The pastor, the Rev. J. A. Carter, gave a final message, “Serving in Another Room.” The Rev. J. A. Shelton, expressed in prayer, the promises held to anguished hearts, recalling the scripture, “In My Father’s House are many mansions…”

We Remember…

Hettie Dungee
AGE 14
“friendly, honor student"
Christine Hendricks
AGE 17
“outgoing, pleasant"
Dodson Hendricks
AGE 18
“quiet, sincere"
Naomi Hendricks
AGE 18
“cheerful, conscientious"
Winfield Page
AGE 15
“eager, ambitious"


“I do know that I related with heated emphasis the facts they knew to be the truth. We mapped out for those students...our wish that they not accept the conditions of our school and that they would do something about it.”

“We want a new school or none at all!”


By the time of the bus accident, Barbara Johns had already begun to plan the strike action in secret. On her own, Barbara had called together a small group of student leaders from each class, including Carrie and John Stokes, and shared her idea of a strike. The students kept the plan a secret and by April were ready to put their plan into effect.

Strike Committee

“We never even thought of integration, we just wanted equality.”
— John Stokes
Letter from Carrie Stokes and Barbara Johns to Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson | April 23, 1951

“Barbara stood up there and addressed the school. She seemed to have everyone’s attention.... At one point, she took off her shoe and she banged on the podium and said that we were going to go out on strike and would everyone please cooperate and don’t be afraid, just follow us out. So we did. The entire student body followed her out...”


1935 - 1991

Her family instilled in Barbara a love of reading, writing, and intellectual debate. Barbara’s uncle Vernon Johns, a prominent Baptist minister and activist, maintained a home in the county and visited frequently. He had an extensive library, open to Barbara and her siblings. It is likely that Barbara Johns’ courageous stand for equality was partially inspired by her outspoken uncle.

She grew to be an introspective and thoughtful young woman who exuded purpose and conviction. The inequality in school transportation hit her the hardest, when one of Barbara’s closest friends was killed in the bus accident that had occurred about a month before the strike. When Barbara complained about the school to Inez Davenport Jones, her music teacher, Jones told her “…sometimes in life, you have to do something about your conditions.”

“There wasn’t any fear, I just thought— this is your moment. Seize it!”

“...but mostly it was quiet and peaceful and I sought the woods for solitude and to read in peace. ”

Excerpts from
Barbara Johns' Diaries




Who to Call


T. J. McIlwaine

Principal Jones called School Superintendent T.J. McIlwaine to inform him of the strike. McIlwaine refused to come to the school that day or to meet with the students until they agreed to return to class.


L. Francis Griffin

After the auditorium meeting, the strike leaders asked Rev. L. Francis Griffin, minister at Farmville’s First Baptist Church, whether they should get their parents’ permission to proceed. He advised them to take a vote among themselves and referred them to the NAACP.


Oliver Hill

Barbara Johns called Oliver Hill, one of the NAACP’s attorneys in Richmond, to ask for his assistance in moving their case forward.


Local Reaction

Reaction to the strike took many forms. News of it spread slowly outside the segregated community. At first, many citizens and community leaders refused to take it seriously.
“They sent a bunch of children over to see me. There wasn’t enough room in my office, so we went upstairs to the county courtroom for the meeting... Barbara Johns did a good deal of the talking...they were asking questions like why couldn’t they go to the white high school, and I had to explain that we have to live by the laws and that it was just a matter of the Virginia statutes. I said we were going to get them a better school as soon as we could.”
455 Protest School’s “Inadequate” Facilities

FARMVILLE, VA., April 24 —The entire study body of the R.R. Moton Negro high school walked out yesterday, protesting against “inadequate” facilities at the school, and were still on “strike” today.

Four hundred and fifty-five pupils left school shortly before noon after attending an assembly they said “was so overcrowded that breathing was difficult.” One of the students said the school auditorium seats only 300, and the students who must stand in the aisles create a serious fire hazard.

School officials were slightly dismayed at the action, pointing out that a new $800,000 high school is in the planning stage.

Superintendent T.J. McIlwaine said negotiations were in progress for a site. In Richmond, Dowell J. Howard, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, said the State Education Department had approved the new school as part of Prince Edward County’s four-year school development program.

Big Outlay Planned

The program also includes plans for three new Negro elementary schools. All told, the county intends to spend $1,925,000 improving Negro school facilities, as against $675,000 for white schools.

The new Moton school, which as now planned would take care of 700 pupils, was approved by the State Education Department January 25.

However, the county school board must submit another application for monetary help before any State funds can be released for construction of the school.

McIlwaine said the strike apparently was a protest against conditions at the present school and delay in the construction of the new school. He said he didn’t know how much longer it would be before work started.

The superintendent said the walkout “seemed to be student-inspired.” In answer to a query he declared it had “nothing in the world” to do with a recent rail crossing accident in which five Moton students were killed when a school bus was struck by a train.

A member of the student “s t r i k e committee” complained that a new school building has been promised for five years, and “all we get is tar-paper shacks.” Three temporary wooden buildings were erected to relieve overcrowding at the school. The student said that they are improperly heated, have leaky roofs and lack sanitary facilities. She said there are only two lavatories and four drinking fountains for the 455 pupils, all located in the main building.

MASS MEETING in Moton auditorium on April 26—Oliver Hill and his law partner Spottswood Robinson were not available to attend the meeting, but W. Lester Banks, state secretary of the NAACP, was there and spoke to a packed house. The NAACP offered “to intervene in the matter” but only if the community was willing to challenge the system of segregation, not just demand equal facilities.

The Rally at First Baptist

On April 30, Principal Boyd Jones and the Moton faculty signed an official letter requesting that parents return their children to school immediately. They argued that it was not only illegal, but that it delayed their education. Griffin feared that the principal’s letter might succeed in dividing the community, so he immediately organized a second mass meeting at his church to solidify support for the students.
Letter from Principal Boyd Jones and the Moton Faculty to Parents | April 30, 1951
“REMEMBER, the eyes of the world are on us. The intelligent support we give our cause will serve as a stimulant for the cause of free people everywhere.”
Leaders like Rev. Griffin felt it was necessary to work to increase understanding in the community in order to bolster the chances of success, not just for equal school facilities, but for the NAACP’s evolving strategy to end racial segregation. The students’ parents and neighbors also took time to digest and understand the meaning of what their children had done. Many were surprised and proud of them, but a good number were apprehensive. Support for their position was uncertain.


“It seemed like reaching for the moon.”

Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson came to Farmville prepared to urge the Moton students to go back to class. For the attorneys, Prince Edward County was not an ideal place to launch a challenge against segregated education.
The students, by their self-assurance and strength of character, convinced Hill and the NAACP in Virginia to take their case. The students and their parents agreed to the NAACP’s litigation strategy. With the filing of Davis v. County Board of Education of Prince Edward, they would fight, not just for ‘separate but equal’ schools, but for desegregated schools.

Oliver Hill

“I went to law school so I could go out and fight segregation.”
Oliver Hill earned his undergraduate degree from Howard University and in 1933 graduated from Howard University School of Law, where he was a classmate and close friend of Thurgood Marshall. Prior to WWII, Hill worked closely with the Virginia NAACP on cases focused on equality in teachers’ salaries, bus transportation, and high school facilities. After his service in the war, Hill, along with his law partner Spottswood Robinson, led the NAACP’s campaign to undermine “separate but equal” education across the state.

“But a strike in Prince Edward was something else again. Only these kids turned out to be so well organized and their morale was so high, we just didn’t have the heart to tell ’em to break it up."