Weekly Recap: Barbara Johns Overlooked No More, Virginia Dems Boost One Another, the GOP Stumbles…

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Overlooked No More: Barbara Johns, Who Defied Segregation in Schools (NY Times)

At 16, Johns led a strike by the student body that ultimately became one of five court cases consolidated into Brown v. Board of Education.

Barbara Johns in a high school graduation photo from 1952.

Overlooked is a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

By Lance Booth

The plan was daring, even risky: Convince the entire all-black student body to walk out of school and not return until the government gave them a bigger, better building — one like the white students had.

Yet if Barbara Johns, a 16-year-old student at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Va., was daunted, she did not show it as she announced the plan from the school’s auditorium stage.

Barbara would achieve more than she had hoped: She would help change the entire education system in the United States by taking part in one of five cases that would be consolidated into Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case in which the justices unanimously ruled that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional.

The case Barbara would join, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, would not only have the largest group of plaintiffs; it would also be the only one that was led by students.

But that was all in the future on that April 23, 1951, as 450 students awaited her instruction in the auditorium. After she proposed the walkout, some students said they were afraid they’d get into trouble with the school authorities or even arrested.

Barbara responded, “The Farmville jail isn’t big enough to hold us.”

There were many experiences in Barbara’s life that had led her to organize the protest, but the catalyst came one morning earlier that month when she had a particularly difficult time getting to school.

She had just finished helping her four younger siblings get dressed, shuffled them out the door and left for school herself when she realized that she had forgotten her lunch and ran back home to retrieve it. By then she had missed her school bus and wound up stranded on the side of the road trying to hitchhike a ride to make it to class on time.

An hour passed. No luck.

Then she saw the “white bus” go by; unlike her usual bus, a segregated one for black students that was always overcrowded, this one was half empty.

“Right then and there,” she later wrote in an unpublished diary, “I decided that indeed something had to be done about this inequality.”

Her small, single-story school building, with more than 450 students, was so crowded that tarpaper shacks had been built outside to handle the overflow. Cold winter days made it especially difficult for the students there to concentrate.

The nearest all-white school was in better condition and more spacious, with two stories for fewer than 400 students.

Barbara’s school had no laboratories, no gym and no cafeteria. There was a music teacher, however, and Barbara confided in her.

“I told her it wasn’t fair that we had such a poor facility, equipment, etc,” she wrote in the diary.

The teacher, she continued, “paused for a few moments and asked, ‘Why don’t you do something about it?’ I was surprised at her question, but it did not occur to me to ask what she meant. I just slowly turned away, as I felt she had dismissed me with that reply.”

But then she gave her teacher’s suggestion more thought and rounded up a group of students to consider their options.

“From this,” she wrote, “we would formulate a plan to go on strike. We would make signs, and I would give a speech stating our dissatisfaction, and we would march out of the school.”

Johns in an undated photo. The lawsuit she helped lead was the only one of the five consolidated into Brown v. Board of Education that originated with students.Creditvia Moton Museum

Her younger sister, Joan Johns Cobbs, said in a telephone interview that Barbara forged a note to the teachers, purportedly from the principal, telling them to assemble the student body. When everyone gathered, “there was no principal there, and instead it was my sister on the stage,” Cobbs said. “All the students, like me, were in shock.”

Barbara Johns proceeded to walk out of the building. Everyone followed. “I was surprised the whole thing worked,” Cobbs said.

The strike, as they called it, preceded the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama by four years and the Greensboro lunch-counter sit-ins in North Carolina by nine years, making Barbara Johns an early champion of civil rights.

Barbara’s hopes were high. “People would hear us, would see us and understand our difficulty, would sympathize with our plight and would grant us our new school building,” she wrote.

“It would be grand,” she added, “and we would live happily ever after.”

The students did not return to school for two weeks. But rather than receiving promises of a new building, they were met with vague threats from the schools superintendent, who said their parents would find themselves in trouble if the students did not return.

Barbara decided legal action was the next step, and she contacted the NAACP’s branch office in Richmond, Va., about 65 miles east of Farmville.

“The phone rang and it was Barbara Johns,” Oliver Hill, a lawyer who would help lead the Brown case, said in an interview for the 2004 documentary “Beyond Brown: Pursuing the Promise.” “She wanted us to take her case and handle it. She was so insistent.”

The organization agreed to help her, but asked her to change her focus: Rather than push for a new building, her lawsuit should push for integration. Hill, along with the lawyers Martin A. Martin and Spottswood Robinson III, filed the suit, Davis v. County School Board.

“Initially, nobody dared dream beyond a separate facility with proper equipment and good buildings,” Johns told The Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1988. “But once the lawyers explained that integration would be the best way for us to accomplish our goals, I said, ‘Certainly. Let’s go for it all.’ ”

The NAACP lawyers ultimately consolidated Davis and four other cases addressing school segregation as Brown v. Board of Education before appealing to the Supreme Court.

As well as being the only case that had originated with students, Davis stood out because it accounted for a majority of the plaintiffs in Brown, said Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

“Barbara Johns’ action helped accelerate the plan,” Ifill said. “People should know her name.”

Barbara Johns was born in Harlem on March 6, 1935, to Robert and Violet Johns. The family moved to a farm in Darlington Heights, Va., about 15 miles outside of Farmville. Her father worked on the farm, and her mother traveled to Washington to work Sundays to Fridays as a clerk for the Navy.

After mobilizing students in her high school, Barbara began receiving threats, so her parents sent her to live with an uncle in Montgomery to finish school.

“It was a time when anyone would do a thing like she did, there would be consequences,” Cobbs, her sister, said. “Remember, that was 1951 back in Virginia, and a lot was going on. Everything was separate.”

Johns graduated from Drexel University in Philadelphia, where she received a degree in library science and worked as a librarian for the Philadelphia school system. She married the Rev. William Holland Roland Powell, and they had five children.

Johns lived the rest of life out of the spotlight. She died of bone cancer in 1991 at 56.

In 2008, a sculpture of Johns was unveiled on the grounds of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond as part of a Virginia Civil Rights Memorial. In 2017, the building that houses the state attorney general’s offices was renamed the Barbara Johns Building, and the Farmville library was dedicated to her. Last year the state celebrated its first Barbara Johns Day, on April 23.

“Our family is still in awe of all the things that happened since Barbara passed away,” said Cobbs, who is 80. “The hearts and minds of people have changed. We have come a long way since the time we were discriminated against in such a terrible manner. I’m glad I lived to see it.”

Hear why Virginia’s attorney general is offering solutions to racial inequality (WJLA)

LOUDOUN COUNTY, Va. (ABC7) — A historic African American church was the backdrop Thursday night for a forum on how to counter racial inequities in Loudoun County and the Commonwealth of Virginia not with words but with priorities and a plan.

“We’ve been too quiet as a county and a commonwealth we’ve just accepted this is just the way it is,” says Leesburg Town Council member Ron Campbell.

Earlier this year Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring admitted that he wore blackface to a college party in 1980. Herring then vowed he would be a part of positive change and said he’d dig into solutions to critical problems, like the lack a judicial diversity, offensive highway names and how to quickly remove Confederate monuments.

Thursday night Herring returned with answers.

Herring says, “Of the 410 judges on Virginia circuit court, the District Court and the Court of Appeals, 50 are African American. That’s 12 percent compared to 20 percent of the population.”

He adds, there’s only one African American judge in Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William County’s each. None in Loudoun. His solution: lobby the General Assembly in Richmond to do better, since members appoint judges.

He researched changing Route 7, named after racial segregationist Harry Byrd and found it can be done by convincing local leaders, like the Board of Supervisors, to request a name change.

And he pushed citizens to call on state lawmakers to change a law forbidding localities from removing Confederate monuments.

“I think ultimately having grand heroic monuments to white supremacists and placing their names on schools, government buildings, streets and other positions of honor is poisonous to the unity of our Commonwealth,” says Herring.

Leesburg Town Council member Ron Campbell says much has been accomplished in only months and now it’s time to act.

Campbell says, “We have work to do. We can’t depend that others will take care of our issues.

The subject of schools also came upon a hot button issue. It was also announced that Loudoun Freedom Center is working with Loudoun County Public Schools on curriculum development and diversity training.

In a pivotal year, Danica Roem uses her spotlight to boost other Virginia Democrats (Washington Post)

Tommy Yap, left, Dave Evans and Augusto Gomez talk with Virginia Del. Danica A. Roem (D-Prince William) in Manassas. She is up for reelection in the fall. (Cal Cary for The Washington Post)

By Antonio Olivo

When Del. Danica A. Roem sought in 2017 to become the country’s first openly transgender state lawmaker, the Republican Party of Virginia funded a political flier that referred to her as a man and speculated that she would teach “transgenderism” to kindergartners.

This year, the GOP rushed to Roem’s defense after an ­anti-LGBTQ group mounted a demonstration against her presence in Richmond.

“Delegate Roem does not deserve to be subjected to Westboro Baptist’s vile protests” the state party tweeted about the Kansas-based group behind the attack. Pete Snyder, a one-time Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, added: “@pwdanica — Chin up, we all have your back.”

The change illustrated the extent to which Roem (D-Prince William) has become a force in Virginia politics: a first-term lawmaker largely focused on traffic and other bread-and-butter issues, but with a celebrity profile that opens pocketbooks and draws attention nationwide.

In a pivotal election year, when control of the General Assembly hangs in the balance and the outcome in Virginia could help set the stage for the 2020 presidential contest, Republicans are steering clear of personal attacks on Roem that could energize her vast network of supporters.

“She raises more money in small dollars than any other politician in Virginia,” said John Findlay, executive director of the Virginia GOP, referring to the 2,400 donations Roem has received of $100 or less.

He said the party will focus on Roem’s voting record this fall in supporting her Republican opponent, conservative activist Kelly McGinn, who launched her campaign in March and quickly raised $49,400, according to an April 15 campaign filing.

Roem, by comparison, has raised $280,200, nearly three times as much as the average hauls of the 15 other freshman Democrats in the House. Her campaign also has returned to the House Democratic Caucus about $107,000 in unused funds from two years ago, when Roem beat longtime Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Manassas), who described himself as Virginia’s “chief homophobe.”

That money is being steered toward incumbents in battleground areas and Republican-held districts that Democrats are targeting, a caucus spokeswoman said.

“The fundamentals are there for us to win this election and bring in a majority,” Roem said. “I want to make sure we get there.”

Roem, a 34-year-old former newspaper reporter, seems to occupy two parallel political universes. Some days, she’s talking about school boundaries, phoning colleagues to urge their support for more transportation funding in Northern Virginia or urging her 81,000 Twitter followers to “help flip Virginia.” On others, she’s at fundraisers with national Democratic leaders, buttonholing presidential candidates Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) or Pete Buttigieg, the openly gay mayor of South Bend, Ind.

“She’s one of those rare combinations of ‘good on all ends,’ ” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. “And she happens to be transgender, which gives her more attention. That’s what makes her formidable in many ways.”

Roem speaks on the floor of the House of Delegates in April about an amendment to a bill she introduced. (Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post)

Breaking a path for others

Roem won her seat during a historic election that added 15 Democratic seats to the House of Delegates, leaving Republicans with a majority by just two seats. The GOP also controls the Senate by two seats.

Her 8-point victory helped inspire more than a dozen other transgender candidates to seek office nationwide, sometimes with Roem’s help.

She traveled to Colorado to rally supporters of Brianna Titone, who won a state House seat by 194 votes. From afar, she advised Gerri Cannon and Lisa Bunker, both of whom are now state lawmakers in New Hampshire. Last fall, Roem went to Massachusetts to help defeat a state proposition that would have nullified a 2016 lawprotecting transgender people from discrimination in public places.

“A lot of the ways I’m approaching this office comes from having conversations with Danica about her experience,” said Titone, a former geologist who has focused on flood control in her district.

As she traveled inside and outside Virginia, Roem tweeted constantly. There were posts about drivers who run stop signs, road closures, the town halls she was holding to discuss Route 28 congestion and the effects of a 2018 law that expanded Medicaid eligibility for an additional 400,000 low-income Virginians.

There were photos of Roem talking transportation with former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke during his visit to Virginia in April and videos of ­Buttigieg praising Roem in a speech at a Victory Fund luncheon in Washington and Harris speaking to her backstage at a Human Rights Campaign dinner in Los Angeles.

“You are meant to be where you are,” Harris said. “We need you there.”

Del. David Reid, left, and Roem look up at the voting board as ballots are cast in April during a one-day session in the House. (Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post)

Roem’s time in Virginia’s button-down capital started out rocky, with some conservative lawmakers looking askance at the lanky Democrat who arrived wearing her trademark rainbow headscarf and leading a trail of news cameras.

A decision by House Majority Leader Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) to do away with the traditional titles of “gentleman” and “gentlewoman” avoided some potentially awkward moments.

Roem tells the story of one Republican lawmaker, whom she would not name, asking her to step outside for some fresh air, then proceeding to “try and save my soul” by praying for her. Roem said she walked away, telling him the gesture was inappropriate.

On the House floor, Roem sometimes broke protocol, once drawing snide comments from colleagues when she sprinted across the ornate, filigreed hall to reach her seat in time to slam the “aye” button for a vote on transportation funding.

Another day, Del. Christopher P. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach) gently reprimanded Roem for firing questions directly at a witness during a meeting of the subcommittee he leads. Normally, questions are funneled through the committee chair.

Roem talks with Del. Lee Ware (R-Powhatan) during a one-day Assembly session. (Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post)

None of her bills made it to a floor vote during her first legislative session, which is typical of freshmen in the House minority. In her second year, three of 13 bills were approved.

Del. Richard C. “Rip” Sullivan Jr. (D-Fairfax), who recruited Roem to seek office in 2017, called her “a very fast study.”

“She recognized almost immediately that, to be successful in Richmond, you’ve got to find ways to work with all of your colleagues,” Sullivan said. “Now, Danica is fearless when it comes to approaching other members.”

A focus on local issues

After the session ended, in March, came the protest by the Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas-based group known for demonstrating at funerals of slain service members to show opposition to U.S. military policies on allowing gay people to serve.

Six demonstrators showed up. They were outnumbered by more than 100 of Roem’s supporters, whose jubilant counter-demonstration included a kazoo band. Roem raised $36,000 from about 1,000 donors after she asked people on Twitter to send a message to the Westboro group.

Del. C.E. “Cliff” Hayes Jr. (D-Chesapeake) stops Roem for a portrait April 3 at the Capitol in Richmond. (Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post)

McGinn, 49, who worked as senior counsel to Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) when he was a U.S. senator, so far has avoided direct attacks against Roem.

However, in January, when McGinn was urging lawmakers in Richmond not to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, she noted that “the amendment doesn’t even use the word ‘woman.’ It uses the word ‘sex.’ ”

“And in 2019 . . . the word ‘sex’ doesn’t have a definition anymore,” McGinn said, according to a video posted to YouTube. “Our society is very confused about what that word means.”

McGinn declined requests for an interview about her candidacy. In a statement, she referred to the “drama and dysfunction” of the Democratic Party — an allusion to controversies involving decades-old appearances in blackface by Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring and allegations of sexual assault against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. She promised, if elected, to focus on traffic, schools and other local issues.

“Our Commonwealth sorely needs leaders who are in touch with the day-to-day challenges facing families and working people in our District and who can work in a collaborative way with state and local leaders on real solutions,” the statement said.

Roem said such cooperation and pragmatic focus are, precisely, her mission.

On a recent day, she rang doorbells in a conservative section of Prince William County, carrying a clipboard and brochures for state Sen. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax), a second-term lawmaker who lost this part of the district by large margins in previous elections. Some people in the neighborhood had no idea who she was. Others recognized her immediately.

“Danica Roem!” a man on a bicycle called out from half a block away, just before a couple also wanting to chat pulled up in their minivan.

Tina Brugioni, who voted Republican in last year’s congressional midterms but backed Roem in 2017 and plans to do so again in the fall, looked up from her flower garden as the delegate approached.

“We finally have someone who is representing the life issues that everyday people experience, rather than their own personal agenda,” said Brugioni, 56. “That’s the job: to represent people in the district.”

Days later, Roem sat inside a Manassas diner, calling Democratic and Republican lawmakers to build support for a proposal for more highway funding.

As she prepared to leave, Jerry Deem, chief of a local volunteer fire department, walked over to complain about — what else? — Route 28. Backed-up traffic on the roadway, he said, was blocking his engines from leaving the station in the morning.

“You work on those roads for us,” Deem demanded.

“Every day,” Roem answered, before making plans with Deem for a ride-along. “I’m all in.”

In Virginia, the GOP stumbles (Washington Post)

Just a short while ago, Virginia Republicans has reason to believe their political future was getting brighter.

Those hopes didn’t survive the spring.

Let’s go back to those heady days, just a month or so ago, when Republicans seemed to be getting out of their own way for the first time in years. Scandals and embarrassment swirled around and almost consumed their Democratic counterparts. The General Assembly session was broadly successful. And a touch of diversity appeared in the ranks of GOP legislative candidates.

And President Trump’s legal perils, while nowhere near being over, have become less overwhelming. For Virginia Republicans, some of whom paid a high price for sharing a party label with the president, even a small reprieve from his problems is most welcome.

Yep, things were looking fairly good. Not perfect. But orders of magnitude better than they were on election night 2018, when Corey A. Stewart was finally dispatched in the Senate race and three Republican House incumbents lost their reelection bids.

But there are a few recent signs that the good times are over.

The biggest and most bizarre: A contested race for the GOP nomination in the 97th House of Delegates race.

The incumbent, Del. Chris Peace, voted for Medicaid expansion back in 2018. Quite understandably, that vote didn’t sit well with many rank-and-file Republicans.

Peace made a public effort to justify his change of heart on Medicaid expansion, including an op-ed citing scripture and Cicero to bolster his case. It changed nothing. Peace became a political heretic, and the GOP does not tolerate political heretics — unless they have the heft, political skills and institutional influence of, say, a Del. Terry Kilgore, whose change of heart on Medicaid expansion all but guaranteed the House would pass it. Kilgore is running unopposed for reelection.

After a byzantine series of meetings, skirmishes, disagreements, interventions and an ersatz nominating convention the state party refuses to recognize, it looks like Peace lost his reelection bid to challenger Scott Wyatt.

Or not. According to Peace and the Republican Party of Virginia, as well as the 97th District’s Republican Committee, there will be a firehouse primary June 1 to determine the nominee.

There’s a possibility, then, the GOP could have two candidates claiming to be the nominee. Should this happen, there will be appeals, more appeals, recriminations and accusations.

That’s not a good look for the GOP.

But it gets even uglier, because the Peace imbroglio has brought Republican senators into direct conflict with their party leadership and House Speaker Kirk Cox.

Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment decided to make an example of Peace, circulating a flier at one meeting that “singled out Peace as the only Republican in the greater Richmond area who voted to ‘expand Obamacare.’”

Worse for Peace (and GOP unity in general), Sens. Ryan McDougal and David Suetterlein were part of the convention that tossed Peace.

If it all seems a bit confusing, that’s because it is. Heading into the November elections, the GOP needed to do a few things well: stay on message (responsible adults, no drama, no embarrassments) and put the focus on the Democrats.

Instead, Republicans have reverted to their recent type: score-settling is in, and how it all looks to normal folks is irrelevant.

And lest we forget, in the much larger and more electorally significant Prince William County, Republicans decided to nominate John S. Gray for County Board chairman.

That’s the job Stewart held for more than a decade but is surrendering after three failed statewide campaigns.

Gray’s campaign looks to be in the Stewart mold — right down to the MAGA backdrop.

That’s not going to be an easy sell in a rapidly changing county that went for Democrats Hillary Clinton (in the 2016 presidential election), Ralph Northam (in the 2017 gubernatorial election) and Tim Kaine (in the 2018 Senate election) in successive statewide contests.

Things looked so good in April. Maybe they will again for the GOP — once it is through with its current self-destructive binge.

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