Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Barbara Johns – Honoring a Young Virginia Hero

By Ken Longmeyer

Led by several students at J.E.B. Stuart High School, “Students for Change,” a consensus is developing in our community that J.E.B. Stuart was not and is not an appropriate name for a school.

Many residents of the Stuart Community feel that the Fairfax County School Board should rename J.E. B. Stuart High School in honor of Barbara Rose Johns, a sixteen year old Virginia hero, and young woman of color,who played an essential role in ending racial segregation in America. In 1950, Barbara Johns, unwilling to continue attending a dilapidated, segregated high school in Prince Edward County,Virginia, led a walk-out that culminated in a lawsuit against segregated education in Prince Edward County. This suit, bundled with Brown v. Topeka and other school integration suits, led to the 1954 Supreme Court decision that racially segregated schools were inherently unequal and unconstitutional. All of this happened before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery. The successful outcome of the school integration suits depended on the NAACP, its talented and dedicated attorneys, including Thurgood Marshall, Spottswood Robinson and others, and the courage and integrity of students like Barbara Johns.

Five years later, during Virginia’s massive resistance to school integration, the Fairfax County School Board, in a gesture of defiance, named the new high school built to serve the Seven Corners, Baileys Crossroads, Lincolnia, Lake Barcroft and Sleepy Hollow communities after J.E.B. Stuart, an officer in the U.S. Army who resigned his commission and took up arms against the United States. This gesture should be repudiated.

There are additional reasons for naming our high school after Barbara Johns: There are 26 high schools in Fairfax County. Not one is named after a female, a person of color, or a young person. Many unsung heroes of the civil rights era were school girls and women. Naming our high school after a female student would be a tribute not only to Barbara Johns but to other young heroes including first grader Ruby Bridges of New Orleans, 17-year-old Elizabeth Eckford of the “Little Rock Nine” and many more who showed great courage and resolve in the face of prejudice and violence.

Courageous young people inspire us. Beyond the American South, Anne Frank of Amsterdam, Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan and Zlata Filipovic of Sarajevo,were young adults who inspired others to resist oppression and commit themselves to freedom, equality, justice and human rights. Barbara Johns of Virginia was such a young person.

Barbara Johns’ leadership has been recognized. Books by Taylor Branch and others record Johns’ role in integrating America’s schools. In 2008, Governor Tim Kaine unveiled The Civil Rights Memorial in Richmond that includes Johns’ statue. In 2010, Governor McDonnell unveiled her portrait at the Capitol in Richmond. The contributions of this Virginia hero should be better understood and celebrated here in Northern Virginia.

The primary purposes of public schools are to provide knowledge, skills and civic values and to inspire young people to achieve and to serve. Re-dedicating our local high school provides an excellent opportunity for the School Board to take a decision that would inspire young people – especially young women – to respond creatively and nonviolently to the many challenges that face our community and country.

Some have proposed that our high school be renamed after Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, a native of Baltimore, whose contributions to America are widely known and celebrated. In addition to the BWI Thurgood Marshall airport, there are institutions, scholarships and schools named after Mr. Marshall all over America, including in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. There is another consideration: renaming our high school after Justice Marshal would cause confusion since Fairfax County already has a high school named after General George Marshall. High schools named after Justice Marshall and General Marshall would both have Falls Church addresses. We have other civil rights heroes we should recognize.

Some members of our community who oppose a name change cite costs, others charge that advocates of a name change are trying to erase or rewrite history. History cannot be erased. J.E.B. Stuart’s place in American history will remain available in books, libraries, and museums. Instead, this is an effort to rename our high school after a Virginian who deserves to be honored and remembered for her positive contributions that elevated all Americans. In the final analysis, however, the School Board’s decision will not be determined by costs but by our values.

The School Board has begun soliciting the views of the residents of the Stuart Community on renaming J.E.B. Stuart. We urge eligible residents to support “The Barbara Johns High School.”