Joan Johns Cobbs remembers that Monday morning 70 years ago. She was 12 years old, crammed among nearly 500 students overflowing the auditorium of the all-Black Moton School in Prince Edward County, Virginia. The teachers had been told to leave. All eyes were on Joan’s 16-year-old sister Barbara, taking the stage. The crowd that morning, April 23, 1951, underscored the righteousness of the cause. Moton was supposed to accommodate 180. The building was so decrepit and its offerings so inferior to its nearby all-white counterpart that the fiction of “separate but equal” could no longer be conscionably sustained. Barbara spoke calmly but forcefully, urging her schoolmates to declare a strike.
“She started to tell us about walking out of school,” Cobbs, now 82, recalled recently. “I was so shocked that I slid down in my seat as far as I could go.” Cobbs worried how the white community would react, and her parents. “I was thinking about the fact that there would be consequences for this and that I was very afraid.” Consequences? The students could scarcely have imagined all that would flow from that fulcrum moment. They asked the NAACP to help and agreed to take an enormous risk by joining the legal battle to end school segregation. Soon, the Prince Edward students would account for 75% of the plaintiffs in Brown vs. Board of Education.
The 70 years since have seen triumph, tragedy and, finally, recognition. After Brown’s 1954 Supreme Court victory, Prince Edward became the epicenter of Massive Resistance. From 1959 to 1964, the county closed its public schools rather than integrate them, locking out a generation of students.
Some Black students moved, and some pieced together haphazard learning. But there were far fewer opportunities to adapt than for white students. An estimated 1,300 Black students went without formal education, and the illiteracy rate among young Black people increased sevenfold. These losses — academic, social, economic — were passed down through children and grandchildren. We still feel them here, seven decades on.
Unlike many classmates, Elzora Stiff, locked out as a fifth-grader in 1959 and school-less until age 15, got back on track educationally. She earned college and graduate degrees and became a teacher, principal and Prince Edward School Board member. Stiff recalled the community’s “feeling of despair” from their lost years of education. “It was a void there,” she said. “Some of us may have progressed educationally, but socially there was that element of isolation.”
Barbara Johns died in 1991, after a quiet career as a librarian, in relative obscurity. But, in recent years, the Moton story has assumed its rightful prominence in American history. In 2001, on the 50th anniversary of the Moton student strike, the old schoolhouse reopened as a museum, the building rescued by community members. Today, in partnership with Longwood University, the Moton Museum welcomes more than 20,000 visitors annually. Many are schoolchildren, inspired by the story’s youthful protagonists, learning history now part of the state’s Standards of Learning curriculum.
A statue of Johns now stands in Richmond’s Capitol Square. Nearby, lawyers with the Office of the Virginia Attorney General, whose predecessors fought tirelessly to uphold school segregation, report to work each day at a building named in her honor. Perhaps nothing could have astonished Johns, or anyone from that era, more than the news this year from the Virginia General Assembly: Johns would become one of the two Virginians honored with a statue in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. The person she’ll replace: Robert E. Lee.
The statue matters profoundly. But the Moton Museum’s mission — and our debt to the strikers and those impacted by the school closings — command we do more than honor the past. Marking this anniversary, we must confront the educational civil rights challenges of our time. Our community understands like few others how powerfully it matters to be present together in school — and how educational interruptions cascade down through generations. Children missed school this year for profoundly different reasons than 1959 to 1964. Countless educators have labored tirelessly to lessen the impact. But on top of yawning preexisting racial attainment gaps, students of color are paying a disproportionate price.
More than two-thirds of Black students were consigned to fully remote learning last year, but fewer than half of white students. Parents Together found 4 in 10 of the poorest U.S. students were taking part in remote learning just once a week or less, and 83% of the wealthiest were engaged every day.
The current crisis evokes complex emotions from Stiff. “I think about how I hear all of the kids not learning, the kids not in school, the kids are not signing in, and I say to myself, ‘Am I revisiting the years I spent out of the classroom?’ ” she said. Online learning has been important and meaningful, she insists. She can’t help but wonder, “Are we doing enough to … have them understand ‘let’s not repeat 1959 and that time in our area when we lost so much’?”
Today’s challenge — and the best way to honor Moton’s history — is a broad national commitment to fix the shortcomings in our educational system the past year exposed and to redress the inequalities it has compounded. The work of restoring what students have lost this year will be hard and take decades. It will demand time, money and attention. It must be a generational priority, for all: elected officials, teachers, parents, business leaders, clergy, voters, everyone. We cannot afford to wait for the students themselves to lead the way.
Cameron Patterson is executive director of the Robert Russa Moton Museum in Farmville, Virginia. Justin Pope is a former education journalist and chief of staff at Longwood University.