CHAPTER 24. A FIGHT FOR SCHOOL DESEGREGATION IN FARMVILLE
We have already shown how Vernon Johns influenced one of the main thrusts toward civil rights with his association with Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. This chapter will show his influence on another major thrust for civil rights -- the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown vs. The Board of Education, which was a conglomerate of several cases handled together. At this time, Vernon Johns was preaching in Montgomery, Alabama.
It was not until the late 1930's and early 1940's that blacks in the South -- encouraged by the 1938 decision of the Supreme Court in the "Gaines Case" on the university level -- turned to the Federal courts as a major resort in their fight for better elementary and secondary schools for their children. Thereafter, protests against and appeals for the correction of inequalities between white and black schools were increasingly followed by litigation. According to Wilkerson (1969:260&269), in Virginia, there were three successive trends in this developing fight. The first stage was asking for equal teachers' salaries. The Journal and Guide (January 22, 1938:1) carried a story about the equal pay campaign being backed by Virginia teachers. The second phase was for equal school physical facilities. The third phase was a demand for integration. It is important to understand that the school integration cases emerged directly out of organized efforts to equalize salaries and facilities in the separate white and Negro schools.
Every Southern town, city and hamlet had one or more black leaders chosen by the whites. In Farmville this man was a relatively wealthy contractor named Willie Redd. He emphasized that the route to progress for blacks was cooperation with whites. And, of course, men like Willie Redd would have gotten a lot of support from the philosophies of men such as Booker T. Washington and Robert R. Moton of Tuskegee. (Kluger 1976:464)
The most influential white man in Farmville as regards race relations was J. Barrye Wall, Sr., editor of the Farmville Herald (Smith, Bob 1965:20). Wall consulted Willie Redd when he wished to learn of the feelings of the Negro community on one subject or another. In the Farmville Herald they had a column by Basil Anderson entitled Colored News. It was no bigger than the columns for the smallest of the white towns in the area.
Barbara Johns (1935-1991) grew up in Prince Edward County. Mary Spencer-Croner (1891-1972), Barbara Johns's maternal grandmother, had eight brothers and sisters. Apparently liking large family she had nine children of her own following her marriage to Charles Spencer (1887 - 1927) (no relation to the Spencers of Lynchburg). Her husband lived in Sparrows Point, Maryland as a construction worker during the week, while Mary managed the household back home (Kluger 1976:452). Then suddenly Charles Spencer was killed in an accident on the job. The company sent barely enough compensation so she could pay $1,200 dollars for the 106-acre farm on which the family had been living. Mary decided that, with the help of her many children, she could work the farm for sustenance. The family grew tobacco as the cash crop and corn, wheat, and potatoes to eat.
In 1932 Mary Spencer married Robert Croner (1894-1987) (Kluger 1976:453). He share-cropped the big farm across the road from hers. Croner was a widower and he brought with him to the union five children. The total number of children was, hence, fourteen. They all had to live in the eight-room house, the boys and girls in separate quarters. Robert added the raising of hogs to their vegetable farming.
Mary Croner's second child was Violet Spencer (sister of Jewel Spencer Clark who as a young girl worked for the Johns family). Violet married Robert Johns, the brother of Vernon Johns. They traveled north to Harlem in order to find work. In Harlem they had the first of their five children, Barbara Rose Johns, in 1935, to be followed by four other siblings. Violet Johns worked as a domestic, while her husband snatched what jobs he could. The family moved in with relatives in a rooming house on 129th Street. After a while, they gave up residence in the city and returned home to Prince Edward County.
In Prince Edward, both their parental families owned some land, but farming was brutal without proper equipment and paid very little, so Robert ran a little general store that older brother Vernon owned on The Road. The store was in a section of Darlington Heights, in which Negro farmers predominated. Despite this fact, the clientele was thoroughly mixed. White farmers were regular customers and white salesmen were regular visitors. But there was not much money in running the store. In 1942 Violet found steady work with the government in Washington D.C. and the family lived in an apartment at Fourth and K Streets northeast not far from the Capitol, by which Barbara often would walk.
When the United States entered World War II, her father went into the Army, and the financial strain on her mother became even heavier, so the children were packed onto a train to live for the duration with their grandmother Mary Croner on her farmstead in Darlington Heights (Kluger 1976:453&455). In 1945 her father got out of the army and her mother left her job in Washington to return to the Prince Edward County. By the time the family was reunited after the war, Barbara had become an independent spirit, with a mind and tongue of her own, and a bit of a temper. Henry Powell said about Barbara: "She was something else. Barbara had three brothers and her mother was sick and finally died. She was the head-knocker. When she spoke even her old man, Robert Johns, jumped." She went to school at the Robert R. Moton High School in Farmville.
Barbara's family moved into Vernon's store for a time while her father built their new home down The Road half a mile to the east of Vernon's place. The store and the mill attached to it had a big sign painted on its side saying "WE CHOP WHEAT AS FINE AS FLOUR." But their biggest job was grinding cornmeal for the hogs. They were a social center for that outlying sector of the county, and whites and blacks alike, customers and salesmen, came to shoot the breeze or play cards and talk crops. Barbara would wait on customers after school and came to hold the white man in no special awe (Kluger 1976:454-455). Barbara's father was on good terms with all the whites around. Some would come and sit around and play cards. They were all poor dirt farmers. Mrs. Robert Johns remembers having difficulty adjusting back from the manners of Washington to rural Virginia: "People used to come in and I used to get so angry that they would . . . call you by your first name. 'Violet, how about this' -- and that kind of thing. I would tell them I thought only my personal friends called me by my first name. We used to have a verbal fight almost every day with some salesman or another" (Smith, Bob 1965:28-29 and Kluger 1976:455).
Barbara was a good student. She began to read and think and listen to her outspoken paternal grandmother, Sallie Johns (Kluger 1976:454). "She wasn't an easy person to get close to," Barbara remembers, "but I think she was more of an influence on me than Ma Croner. She had no fear and was not the slightest bit subservient to whites."
But it was Uncle Vernon who lifted Barbara's horizons. While her father was a quiet and kindly man, her uncle was a fire brand. Speaking of her uncle with fondness, Barbara (Kluger 1976:454) said "We'd always be on opposite sides in an argument. . . .I'm afraid we were both very antagonistic. . . .He was beyond the intellectual scope of everyone around the county. I remember that white men would be at the store that he and my father ran together after the war and they'd listen to him speak and shake their heads, not understanding his language." No white man bested him in an argument, and Barbara Johns listened to his way with words and began to make it hers.
Barbara told Bob Smith (1965:28)"My uncle was always outspoken and I used to admire the way he didn't care who you were if he thought that something was right. It used to be an admirable thing to me the way he would handle white men who would have an argument with him. . . ."
Vernon's wife, Altona, and their daughters brought another dimension of culture into Barbara's life. Bright and well-schooled, the daughters were frequent playmates of their cousin, and the girls wrote plays together that got staged at their grade school (Kluger 1976:455). Once they sold tickets to one of their plays and raised enough money to have electric lights installed in the school. Vernon's daughters studied music and used the resources of their father's library and of his mind to move far ahead of their classmates (Smith, Bob 1965: 29).
Reverend L. Francis Griffin
Vernon Johns preached in many communities, including Farmville, where the Reverend Charles Henry Dunstan Griffin occasionally invited him to the pulpit of the First Baptist Church on Farmville's Main Street, the oldest and largest black congregation in Prince Edward County (Kluger 1976:454). He was a graduate of Roanoke Collegiate Institute now a division of Shaw University. After his work at that school and other institutions of learning, he pastored at Cornerstone Baptist Church, Elizabeth City, North Carolina and at other churches in eastern North Carolina. He then went to Norfolk, Virginia.
Rev. Charles Griffin came to Farmville in 1927 after pastoring at Central Baptist, one of the biggest churches in Norfolk (Smith, Bob 1965:7). Fire destroyed it and the Reverend Griffin led his congregation of more than a thousand in a massive rebuilding drive that left him exhausted and in need of a less draining pastorate. Exhausted after the rebuilding, Rev. Griffin was ready to move on.
Leslie Francis Griffin was only ten years old when his father accepted the pastorate of the First Baptist Church in Farmville (Kluger 1976:462). Vernon Johns preached from time to time in Mr. Griffin's church. Leslie came to be influenced in part by Johns who had a very different preaching message than that of Leslie's father. Like so many black preachers in the South, Charles Griffin preached a message that was a call to the brethren to keep the faith until a new day dawned on earth without oppression and poverty. His son said that he was impressed "by his father's ability to stay clam and not to call for retaliation against our tormentors." His father was a pacifist, nonviolence being a part of his nature. But he was an opponent of segregation even though he did not actively crusade against it. Like many another black theologian then, he would couch his message in terms of allegory to avoid being labeled a rabble-rouser.
Griffin's Church, Farmville
The elder Griffin liked the fiery preacher and thought he should be heard, even though they had little in common theologically and Rev. Johns often angered members of the Griffin congregation. Johns believed in preaching on the realities of life -- on the kinds of sins that were tangible, on segregation, on the docility and ignorance of the Negro. Docility was his chief enemy. Johns would denounce the country Negroes who filled the churches where he spoke for their impenetrable docility, for not caring enough (Smith, Bob 1965:12,27,76). Those who had come to church to escape these realities were suitably offended. Mr. Johns believed this to be so much to the good. The younger Griffin said that Vernon was inconsiderate of those who were not up to his level in thinking.
While Johns and Rev. Griffin argued amiably, Leslie Griffin listened and was impressed (Smith, Bob 1965:10-11). He felt that "Johns was an advanced thinker. Nobody liked him. He could tell a person something and make him mad where somebody else could say the same thing and everything would be all right. . . .Yes, he would arouse resentment. A prophet is not without honor except in his own country -- and Vernon was born in Prince Edward."
Once a month, Griffin would come by the general store and mill that Vernon and Robert Johns operated out on The Road, and find a receptive audience there (Kluger 1976:463). Rev. Johns had a good library and he introduced young Leslie to his collection of books and his friends' books. Young Griffin liked Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel. But Vernon Johns made sure that the optimism of the Social Gospel was modified by the realism of Reinhold Niebuhr.
Johns's religion helped Leslie form a theology that was very different from his father's views. In telling of the kind of social gospel he first encountered from the lips of Vernon Johns, Leslie (Kluger 1976:463) said "I felt that all forms of worship should be related to a form of action." "Too many people do no more than pray and expect the world to change. I didn't and don't think that a church is meant to be housed inside a building. Everything about life is a legitimate concern of my religion."
Leslie was somewhat of a rebel and very restless (Smith, Bob 1965:8). He was so far ahead of his classmates that he would become bored with school and would slip out and go out to Jesse Boland's place where Boland had an airplane that he would fly passengers about for a fee. His father would often decide to check on his son and would go out and get him and bring him back to school.
Mrs. Johns taught Leslie music and literature (Smith, Bob 1965:8&10). She wanted him to go on to Fisk University in the five-year program offered there by the Ford Foundation, as her daughters were to do.
Leslie did not finish high school, but rather went to New York for nearly a year to work as a shipping clerk (Smith, Bob 1965:11). In 1939 he went to Charlotte, North Carolina to work as a department store handyman. But it was the war that changed his life. He went into the service shortly after Pearl Harbor and became part of the first Negro tank outfit (758th Tank Battalion). He served under Generals George Patton and Mark Clark. He was in service for more than four years, and somewhere along the line he decided to become a minister.
Back from the war he finished his last year of high school in Rich Square, North Carolina, the home of his father's sister (Smith, Bob 1965:12). He then enrolled at Shaw University in North Carolina. Politics was a favorite subject of young Griffin at Shaw in 1948. The Henry Wallace campaign had touched a spark to the liberalism that had emerged from the war, and for a brief period there was ferment on the left. Griffin threw himself into it wholeheartedly.
In his second year at Shaw, he was married to a classmate, and a son, Skip, was born the next year (Smith, Bob 1965:12-13). Because of his poor financial condition, when Skip was born he and his mother went to her parents' home in New Jersey. They later went to Farmville to stay with Leslie's parents.
Leslie finished college in 1949 (Smith, Bob 1965:11-12). During the summers he would preach at various locations. Vernon Johns was around and he became an even greater influence on Griffin as time went on. Johns called Griffin a "disciple," and Griffin felt complimented.
Willie Reid of the Bland Reid Funeral home (1997) said that as a young man he would drive Vernon Johns and Griffin to various speaking engagements. He remembers the first time he met Vernon Johns. He drove Griffin down to Montgomery. When they got there, he found a church full of people being led by a big man with a Bible in his hand. He remembered how Johns would preach that "A man should live so his funeral won't be the biggest thing in his life." At Shaw University (Griffin's school), Vernon Johns preached to two or three hundred students at a time. He remembered how Johns would stop at the funeral home and take a bath and then get on the train to go speak somewhere. He remembered how there was nothing phony about Johns. He was very easy to talk to. When Johns would drive his own car, he would often carry pigs in the back. Henry Powell remembered that one time when Johns went up to Richmond to speak at Virginia Union, he carried two barrels of slop with him in the back seat. At the university there were flies everywhere and the stench was terrible. But that was Vernon Johns.
In October 1949 Leslie's father died. Members of the congregation asked young Griffin to take over the pulpit (Smith, Bob 1965:13 & Kluger 1976:463)). He accepted. He saw in the church an opportunity for the leadership he was now eager to exercise. At thirty-two, one term short of completing his studies at college, he was the new spiritual leader of the blacks of Prince Edward County.
R. R. Moton High School
In 1939 Farmville constructed a school for blacks, the R. R. Moton High School, named for Prince Edward County native Robert R. Moton, successor to Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee (Kluger 1976:459). The original brick structure, contained seven classrooms, an auditorium, offices, lavatory facilities, and a classroom that had been converted to serve as a cafeteria. The school lacked a gymnasium, cafeteria, an auditorium with fixed seats, locker rooms, and an infirmary, all of which white Farmville High had. In addition, Moton's teachers were paid substantially less. Thanks to the efforts of Vernon Johns, school buses, even if old and rickety, picked up the black children of Darlington Heights to take them to the Farmville school.
R.R. Moton High School
In 1950, the Parent-Teachers Association appointed a committee to negotiate with the County School Board for a new high school. It was headed by Rev. L. Francis Griffin, and consisted of one representative from each school district. According to an anonymous leader (Wilkerson 1969:269), this committee "met with the School Board once a month for more than a year, presenting facts and figures, listing the needs of our schools. But we got nowhere. Constantly they told us there was no money. . . .Finally, we got them to agree to secure land for a new high school -- if we could find a suitable plot, they'd buy it. We found a place, up where the new high school is now located, 60 acres or more. But the Board then said they had no money to build with, and that we need not come back; they'd notify us through the press when they were in position to build."
This foot dragging was to challenge the patience of Barbara Johns (Kluger 1976:466). During her school day, Barbara joined the chorus and the drama group and the New Homemakers of America, and was even elected to the student council. These activities would take her out of the country from time to time to other schools in other parts of Virginia and the more she saw of the outside world, the more dissatisfied she became with the facilities at Moton.
High on the list of complaints was overcrowding. The school, which had a capacity for handling of 300 pupils, had an enrollment of 455. In an earlier effort to relieve congestion three tar-paper covered frame house buildings were erected and cut up into thirteen classrooms of approximately fifteen by twenty feet each along with a manual arts shop, all of which are heated by small iron stoves. The average enrollment was thirty-three students per class, although some classes run as high as fifty-five.
Barbara Johns said that because the roofs leaked the pupils had to move from building to building in wet weather. Other problems such as poor ventilation and unevenness of heating often made it difficult and uncomfortable for the pupils to breathe, let alone concentrate upon their studies. Other school handicaps were the lack of a gymnasium and cafeteria facilities that would permit the serving of hot lunches.
Sometimes black leaders emerge when a crisis arises (Smith, Bob 1965:13,19-21 and Kluger 1976:463&464). But others are born rebels and look for an opportunity to protest. Leslie was the latter type. In talking to his parishioners he found that the school situation was a hot issue. He saw his chance to make a difference here and so he decided to attend his first P.T.A. meeting. Long before the NAACP announced it policy of opposition to school segregation, Leslie was out there talking to whites and blacks about the evils of segregation. He contacted to Richmond lawyers Spottswood Robinson and Oliver Hill, who were roaming the state organizing a massive legal drive for equalized school facilities for blacks. In fact, he organized a chapter of the NAACP to help him in his efforts and was elected president of that organization. He also became head of the Moton PTA. The PTA was the principal black institution in the county. He took on as a supporter a boyhood friend, John Lancaster, the black county agricultural agent, who had similar ideas to those of Griffin's. The other ally of Griffin's was Moton High's principal, M. Boyd Jones. Together, the three men were a formidable triumvirate, though it was the minister, as the only one not dependent on whites for the bread on his dinner table, who carried the flag. Willie Reed resigned from the P.T.A. when Griffin and the new trouble makers came on the scene. Griffin had himself named chairman of the PTA committee that appeared before the school board. And he "waited for them to lose patience with the school board."
The School Strike
By her junior year Barbara Johns was fed up. It was late in the autumn of 1950 when Barbara broached the idea to the president of the Moton student body and her brother, John. She proposed that if things were not improved at the school that the entire Moton student body go out on strike until a new school was built.
Bob Smith (1965:76) wrote that "In the story of the strike that already has taken the shape of folklore on the lips of many white residents of Prince Edward County, the master devil is Mr. Vernon Johns. Mr. Griffin, who is the only principal in the strike still around, comes in for more than his share of tarring, and the names of John Lancaster and Boyd Jones are remembered. But only Mr. Johns is credited with the diabolical skills needed to invent' the strike. Talking about the school strike, Johns told journalist Carl Rowan It was a freak of nature, like a fixed star leaving its orbit'."
Barbara had kept a tight lid on her plans and the actual broaching of the idea of the strike came as a surprise to the student body. On a ruse they got Principal M. Boyd Jones to travel out to the Greyhound bus terminal in search of two students playing hooky, hoping, among other things, thereby to absolve him from blame for their contemplated action (Wilkerson 1969:269). While the principal was away, the student plotters went into action. She had all the students gather in the auditorium. When the approximately 450 students had been seated the stage curtains parted to reveal the secret student committee. A ripple of surprise went through the room. Barbara Johns was at the rostrum. According to reports, Barbara was very forceful in her determination to present her case to the students (Smith, Bob 1965:36-38). She asked that the teachers leave the room. In fact, according to her thirteen-year old sister, Joanne, Barbara took off her shoe and hit it on a bench and said "I want you all out of here." Most left voluntarily, but one had to be forcibly removed.
The principal returned in time to catch the student meeting. He was rather hysterical and pleaded with the students to go back to school. Barbara asked him to go back to his office, and he finally did. The students called Rev. Griffin to come to the school where he found student leaders behind locked doors. They asked him what to do about one boy who had dissented from the plan and wanted the students to get the consent of their parents. Griffins suggested that they simply take a vote among themselves (Smith, Bob 1965:38-40). On April 23, 1951, the black students of Moton High School walked out of class and refused to return for two weeks.
The students wrote to NAACP attorneys in Richmond, asking them to come to Farmville and start a suit for a new high school. Two attorneys did come; but they explained that, in view of the new policy of the N.A.A.C.P, they could not help with litigation unless a suit was filed to abolish school segregation. The P.T.A. met and unanimously voted to sue for integration, which they did in April 1951.
Students began picketing which they threatened to maintain until the school board set a definite date for the beginning of construction of a new school. The students paraded around the school carrying placards which urged the tearing down of "temporary" tar paper buildings and construction of "a new school now" (J&G May 5, 1951:1-2). The picketing ended when authorities informed everyone that the students along with their signs would have to get off of the school property.
On Wednesday afternoon representatives of the students' strike committee met with Superintendent McIlwaine, in an effort to determine when they might expect action on the construction of a 700-student, $800,000 dollar black high school which has been promised as part of the county's four-year school improvement program. Such a school had been promised for more than five years. The superintendent said that the matter would be referred to the school board.
On Thursday night, 950 patrons heard Barbara Johns, a junior and chairman of the student group, describe conditions which had led to the strike. W. Lester Banks, executive secretary of the Virginia Conference of Branches of the NAACP, who had been invited to the meeting by student leaders, outlined the present NAACP policy of seeking court action only toward the securing of full integration in public schools.
The student strike ended May 7. Principal M. Boyd Jones of R. R. Moton High School was fired from his position. Seeking to avert the dismissal of the principal, the parents made a formal request for a conference with the city-county school board (J&G June 30, 1951:1). (John Lancaster was also fired from his position as county agent. Luckily, he was able to get other jobs.) The parents were outspoken in their views that the impending dismissal of the principal is a retaliatory measure.
The NAACP lawyers filed suit on May 23, 1951, one month after the students had walked out of school. Thus began the case of Davis vs. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia, the only such case in a Southside rural area, and one of those decided by the United States Supreme Court on May 17, 1954 (Wilkerson 1969:269-270). Consolidated with four similar suits, it was destined to reach the U.S. Supreme Court as part of the historic Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
Barbara's parents were scared that the whites might retaliate against their daughter, especially when a cross was burned on the yard of Robert Johns. When Vernon Johns heard the entire story, he was "tickled" by all the stir in his county (Smith, Bob 1965:75-76). Barbara returned with Uncle Vernon to Montgomery. Boyd Jones moved to Montgomery, too, to pursue his doctorate at Alabama State College. He promptly joined Mr. Johns' church.
Uncle Vernon drove Barbara to Montgomery in his green Buick (Branch 1988:22). He stopped on the side of the road to eat watermelon along with the cheese and milk he brought. This somewhat embarrassed Barbara. She also resented that her uncle did not mention her troubles at school.
March 9, 1952 the Lynchburg Branch of the NAACP held a mass meeting at Fifth Street Baptist Church. (J&G March 22, 1952:4) Guest speaker was the Rev. Leslie Francis Griffin, pastor of the First Baptist Church, Farmville, Virginia. He spoke on "The Wisdom of Dangerous and Reckless Living." (If that doesn't sound like a Vernon Johns type sermon we don't know what does.) Invocation was by the Reverend W. C. Butts, pastor of the Mt. Carmel Church. The purpose of the NAACP was given by the Rev. W. J. Hodge, pastor of the Diamond Hill Baptist Church, and president of the local branch.
Return to Main Page Table of Contents
Return to Home Page