By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
In a few years, you will walk through the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall and see a towering bronze statue dedicated to Barbara Johns, the 16-year-old African American student whose organized a protest to change the grim conditions that she and other students encountered in segregated classrooms at Farmville’s all-Black Robert Russa Moton High School.
Decades ago Johns organized and led the 1951 student walkout that caused local officials to scrap tar-paper and plywood buildings at the all-Black high school.
The Commission for Historical Statues in the United States Capitol voted to remove Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s statue in Statuary Hall and replace it with Johns’ statue. Each state has two statues in the hall. Virginia displayed statues of Lee and President George Washington before the commission voted to remove Lee’s statue in 2020 and replace it with a statue of Johns.
In a recent Jan. 4 statement, Virginia State Senator Louise Lucas, who heads the commission, said Maryland sculptor Steven Weitzman was chosen by a unanimous vote. “His obvious passion for this project and his articulation of Barbara John’s legacy evoked an emotional response from the Commission. After his moving presentation, the decision to offer this commission to Weitzman was quickly and easily reached,” Lucas said.
“Once a design has been approved by the Commission, it will be submitted to the Architect of the Capitol and the Joint Committee on Libraries for final approval,” Lucas said.
This statue displays Johns hoisting a book high in the air, while she pounds a fist on a lectern.
The sculptor, Weitzman previously designed a bronze statue of Frederick Douglass in Emancipation Hall in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center in 2013. Weitzman also designed a bronze sculpture of D.C. Mayor Marion S. Barry, Jr. which was installed outside of the John A. Wilson building on Pennsylvania Avenue in 2018..
Johns did not know that her actions would transform history when she organized the 1951 student walkout. But the Farmville-student walkout led to one of five cases examined by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education. Ultimately the Supreme Court ruled school segregation was unconstitutional, thanks to Johns’ efforts.
Following the student strike, Johns moved to Alabama and lived with relatives. She finished school and married William Powell, with whom she raised five children. She earned a master’s degree from Drexel University and worked as a librarian in the Philadelphia Public Schools system before she died at age 56, on Sept. 25, 1991. Her legacy is also depicted in a monument at Richmond’s Capitol Square.
Sculptor Steven Weitzman has been selected to produce the Barbara Rose Johns statue to be placed in the U.S. Capitol. This photo of the concept statue was taken March 22, 2022. Photo by Steven Weitzman