The National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol represents our history in all its exclusion, contradiction and inequity.
First, there’s the preponderance of Confederate soldiers and politicians among the 100 statues in the hall—at least nine, including Virginia’s Robert E. Lee, who will be replaced if we’re a nation in the mood to embrace justice and common sense.
Meanwhile, not a single statue of an African American is represented in the hall itself, although busts of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sojourner Truth are among several likenesses of African Americans elsewhere in the Capitol.
Each state has two representatives that it honors in the National Statuary Hall Collection. During our moment of racial reckoning, some states are attempting to rectify the hall’s imbalance, replacing existing statues with new ones. Florida plans a likeness of educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune; Arkansas, a statue of civil rights activist Daisy Bates. Virginia is considering a replacement for Lee.
During a recent hearing, two speakers touted Oliver W. Hill Sr. for the honor. From where I sit, we can’t do enough to honor the legendary Virginia civil rights lawyer who, with Spottswood W. Robinson III, represented Prince Edward County students in a lawsuit that would be rolled into the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling barring racial segregation in public schools.
But it is the heroine of that Prince Edward lawsuit, Barbara Rose Johns, who particularly intrigues me as a replacement.
Johns was the 16-year-old student at all-Black Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville who led a boycott of what was a separate and unequal school campus consisting partly of tar paper shacks.
Adults initially were kept out of the loop of that April 1951 student strike, which has been hailed as the start of the modern civil rights movement. Three-fourths of the plaintiffs in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case were from the Moton strike. Johns led this protest more than four years before the more heralded Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus, sparking a boycott led by King.
That she did so as a teenager is all the more remarkable.
She paid a price in the aftermath. The Ku Klux Klan left its calling card, a burning cross, in her family’s yard. For her safety, she moved to Montgomery to live with her firebrand uncle, Vernon Johns, one of the early leaders of the civil rights movement. She went on to become a librarian before her death in 1991 at 56.
“Her likeness would make a powerful statement to the millions who visit the Capitol each year—American visitors, international tourists, and especially school children,” wrote Alice Lynch, former executive director of the Virginia Capitol Foundation, in her letter this past month to members of the Commission for Historical Statues in the United States Capitol.
“Her statue would complement Virginia’s other official statue, George Washington; while he represents the pinnacle of power in government and in the military, Barbara Johns represents the patriotic citizen, who without position or rank, has an equally important voice in our representative democracy.”
Lynch noted during the hearing there are no teens among those represented in the statue hall.
“Imagine the two to three million visitors who will come to the Capitol, many, many of whom are teenagers. Imagine if they see a young woman of their age who has transformed our civic society. To me, there would be no more powerful statement that Virginia could send to stand alongside Washington ... to have a citizen, a teenager, a woman of color, standing beside him.”
Cameron Patterson, executive director of the Robert Russa Moton Museum in Farmville, echoed that. He said during an interview Friday that a statue of Johns in the U.S. Capitol not only would broadly represent the contributions of Prince Edward’s residents to the movement, but would be “a powerful statement for young folks to see in her eyes within the statue, hopefully, themselves and the contributions that they could make.”
The statuary hall at the Capitol, in race, gender and generational diversity, needs to look more like America.
The demonstrators who took to the streets this spring and summer marched, wittingly or not, in the footsteps of Barbara Johns.
We need to reinforce or restore in our young people the life-changing possibilities of civic engagement. They need role models to look up to. They could hardly do better than Johns.
Michael Paul Williams is a Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 804/649-6815 or on Twitter: @RTDMPW