The Commission on Historical Statues in the United States Capitol voted to recommend civil rights icon Barbara Rose Johns to represent Virginia in the National Statuary Hall Collection, replacing the existing statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
Gov. Ralph Northam recently announced that his proposed budget includes nearly $500,000 to replace the statue.
On April 23, 1951, sixteen-year-old Barbara Rose Johns led a student walkout at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, protesting the overcrowded and inferior conditions of the all-Black school compared to those of White students at nearby Farmville High School. Her actions garnered the support of NAACP lawyers Spottswood Robinson and Oliver Hill who took up her cause and filed a lawsuit that would later be one of five cases the United States Supreme Court reviewed in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka when it declared segregation unconstitutional. Historians consider Johns’ protest a pivotal moment that launched the desegregation movement in America.
“As a teenager, Barbara Johns bravely led a protest that defied segregation and challenged the barriers that she and her African American peers faced, ultimately dismantling them,” said Northam. “I am proud that her statue will represent Virginia in the U.S. Capitol, where her idealism, courage, and conviction will continue to inspire Virginians, and Americans, to confront inequities and fight for meaningful change now and for generations to come.”
Earlier this year, Northam signed legislation that established the Commission for Historical Statues in the United States Capitol charged with deciding studying the removal and replacement of the Robert E. Lee statue. The eight-member commission, chaired by Sen. Louise Lucas, voted unanimously recommending the removal of the statue on July 24, 2020.
Working with the Department of Historic Resources, the commission collected nominations for the new statue and provided several opportunities for public comment at its virtual meetings. After considering all public comments and guidance from the commission members, the list was narrowed to five finalists including, Oliver Hill, Barbara Johns, John Mercer Langston, Pocahontas, and Maggie Walker.
Since 1909, America’s first president George Washington has stood along with Confederate general Robert E. Lee as Virginia’s contributions to the National Statuary Hall Collection, where each state is entitled to two statues. If approved by the General Assembly, Johns would complement the Washington statue and be the only teenager represented in the collection.
The commission will continue its work to select a sculptor and commission a statue of Barbara Johns.