Building renamed for civil rights pioneer who helped desegregate schools

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RICHMOND, Va. -- The newly renovated state building that houses the Virginia Attorney General offices now holds the name of a civil rights pioneer Barbara Johns, who helped end school segregation in America.

"Change in this Commonwealth and this country, always comes when brave individuals stand up and demand their rights," said Attorney General Mark Herring.

The governor and attorney general were joined by family members and friends of Barbara Johns at the Ninth Street office building, across from Capitol Square, for the renaming. The building was constructed in 1904, and was formerly the Richmond Hotel, as preserved in the stain glass work above the building's lobby.

Herring spoke at the dedication about Johns' hard work and dedication to the cause of ending segregation at schools at a young age.

"Just 16 years old, and yet putting one foot in front of the other, she began a journey that would wind its way all the way to the highest court in the land," added Herring.

Mark Herring speaks about renaming

Mark Herring speaks about renaming

Johns fight for equality arrived at the U.S. Supreme Court, and her plea was combined with what became the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education which declared school segregation unconstitutional.

“Words cannot adequately express how excited and appreciative we, the Johns family, are that Governor Terry McAuliffe has chosen to name the beautiful Ninth Street Office Building after Barbara,” said Joan Johns Cobbs, Barbara Johns’ sister who joined her in the walkout. “It is, indeed, an honor and we are eternally grateful for your thoughtfulness and generosity.”

Johns, who was brought up in the segregated school system of Prince Edward County, organized a student strike at her high school on April 23, 1951 to protest the dilapidated classroom conditions and lack of resources compared with the all-white school in the county. She was a junior when she led more than 450 of her classmates in a march from the school to the courthouse.

Her family feared for her safety and sent her to Montgomery, Alabama to complete school.

Outside of the Barbara Johns building, viewed from Capitol Square

Outside of the Barbara Johns building, viewed from Capitol Square

"It would not have ended, had it not been for the real spark plug, and that spark plug was our own Barbara Johns," added McAuliffe. " I'm so proud to be here today, To honor this spectacular woman. Not only for what she did, but we as Virginian's need to remember that we stand on her shoulders we need to continue to fight here in the Commonwealth for opportunities for all."

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sent civil rights lawyers Oliver Hill and Spotswood Robinson to Prince Edward County to meet with the students, and they agreed to file a lawsuit, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, in federal court on their behalf. (Dorothy E. Davis, daughter of a local farmer, was the first name on the list of students wishing to file suit, hence the case bears her name instead of Johns’.)

The Supreme Court later combined its ruling in the Davis case with four other similar cases in what became the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision that declared segregation in the nation’s public schools unconstitutional. Rather than obey a court order to integrate its schools, Prince Edward County closed all public schools from 1959 until 1964.

The newly modernized building overlooks the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, which features a statue of Johns on the grounds of the State Capitol.