Plywood, Tar Paper, and Revolution

Published:June 12, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe


The latest episode of With Good Reason features an interview with Lacy Ward, a professor at Longwood University in Farmville and director of the Robert Russa Moton Museum. Especially interesting are Ward’s closing comments regarding how the museum must confront the challenges of a) interpreting such recent history, and b) telling the stories of all Virginians involved in and affected by the events surrounding Massive Resistance.

Of course, it all began with Barbara Johns and the striking students of Moton High. Ironically, they weren’t primarily concerned with segregation. They just wanted a better school.

Sixteen-year-old Barbara Rose Johns—niece of Vernon Johns, the firebrand preacher who preceded Martin Luther King Jr. as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama—organized the walkout. She was motivated less by her uncle’s personality than by conditions at Moton High School, named for the Virginia-born educator Robert Russa Moton and the first high school for black students in Prince Edward County. Built in 1939 to accommodate 180 students, the school had no gymnasium, no cafeteria, no science laboratories, and no athletic field. A decade later, the county constructed several freestanding buildings, made of plywood and tar paper, to accommodate a student population of more than 400. The buildings had no plumbing and were heated by wooden stoves. As Johns wrote years later, “I was unhappy with the school facility and its inadequacies … it wasn’t fair that we had such a poor facility, equipment, etc., when our white counterparts enjoyed science laboratories, a huge facility, separate gym dept. etc.”

It wasn’t fair. Those words can sometimes sound a little childish. They can also start revolutions.

IMAGE: African American students protest the closing of schools rather than their court-mandated desegregation, July 1963; courtesy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.