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‘Brave, fearless’ Barbara Johns chosen to replace Robert E. Lee at US Capitol

Johns' sister: 'I jumped up and screamed a little'
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Posted at 7:38 PM, Dec 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-17 20:02:00-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- The younger sister of Virginia civil rights icon Barbara Rose Johns said she is “ecstatic” that her sister has been chosen to replace the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee at the United States Capitol.

“I jumped up and screamed a little. It was wonderful and monumental and I still can't believe that it is happening,” said Joan Johns Cobbs, 82. “I wasn't so sure that she would get…selected…because she was among a lot of other very deserving people. So, I was just amazed that she was the finalist.”

Johns was picked from among five finalists (including Maggie Walker, John Mercer Langston, and Pocahontas) by the Commission for Historical Statues in the United States Capitol at a meeting on Wednesday.

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Each statue has two statues representing it in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall. The Lee statue has been there since 1909. President George Washington is the other statue.

When Johns was 16, she led a student walkout at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia to protest subpar conditions at the all-Black school. Cobbs was also a student at the school and was in eighth grade when it happened.

“That particular day, we were called to the assembly and I thought it was by our principal. But, it turned out Barbara was the one on the stage telling us that we needed to walk out of the school on a strike for a better school,” said Cobbs. "I didn't know anything about it. She had not discussed it with me and I was as shocked as any of the other students. And I didn't know what to do, except to follow her.”

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The strike led to a federal lawsuit that was filed by, among others, Oliver Hill, who was also one of the finalists. Johns’ case was eventually one of five examined by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education that resulted in school segregation being ruled unconstitutional.

Cobbs said Johns faced threats because of her action and had to finish her high school education while living with family members in Montgomery, Alabama. Cobbs said she did not know the real reason for Johns’ departure until she was older.

“When my mother and father decided to send Barbara to Montgomery to live with our Uncle Vernon [Johns] we did not know the real reason why. They did not share with us that they had received threats on her life,” said Cobbs.

Cobbs said she thinks her sister would have been as surprised as her at receiving this nomination, but would have been pleased.

“I just think all of this that has happened to her since she passed would have been shocking to her. She would not have believed this could have happened. And I think she didn't realize what she did was such a monumental feat,” said Cobbs of Johns, who passed away in 1991. “Barbara thought at the time that what we needed was a new school and she never thought it would have evolved into anything further. So, I'm sure she would have been shocked about all of the events that have happened since then."

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Johns is also a part of the Civil Rights statue on the grounds of the Virginia State Capitol, the building housing the Office of the Virginia Attorney General was renamed in her honor, and Cobbs said this past weekend Johns was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca, New York.

The commission’s recommendation still needs to be approved by the General Assembly, but Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said the statue of Lee would be removed in the coming days.

The commission will continue its work to hire a sculptor and create a statue of Johns.

"I hope that particularly the young people will look at it and say to themselves, ‘Wow, she did something at that young age.’ So, you know, maybe it would have inspired them to to make a difference,” said Cobbs of her hopes for what people will take away from the eventual statue. “And I think for the older people, they will be pleased and surprised that a young person stood up for what she believed and felt was an injustice and decided to make it right.”

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“I think it's a profound statement about the transformative power of young people to make an impact within our nation's history,” said Cameron Patterson about the selection. Patterson serves as the director of the Moton Museum, which was formerly the high school Johns walked out of.

“When we tell Barbara Johns' story, when we tell the story of those that went on strike with her, those impacted by the school closings in Prince Edward, we truly are telling a story that is predominantly about young citizens and how they use the tools of democracy to help to bring about change,” added Patterson. “She's a great example of what it means to be a citizen leader a and I'm hopeful that when folks see her statue in the U.S. Capitol, that they will be inspired to go back to their communities to help create change.”

“Barbara was a brave, courageous, and fearless young person who saw an injustice who decided to do something about it. For that, I am very thankful,” added Cobbs.

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