The conditions at Johns’ segregated school were stark, but hardly unique. Due to overcrowding, some classes met in three tar-paper shacks outside the main building. The rooms were poorly heated by potbellied stoves, and the roofs leaked. The school lacked a gymnasium, science labs and a cafeteria. The textbooks were tattered castoffs from the white high school. Court documents later showed the school board was spending just more than $300 per student at Moton, compared to almost $1,700 per student at the county’s all-white high school.
“Barbara was upset about the condition of our school, and we all were,” her younger sister, Joan Johns Cobbs, who was 12 at the time, told me. Still, she knew nothing about plans for a protest until her sister took the stage of her school on 23 April 1951.
“I was seated in the third row, and I was so shocked that I slid down in my seat,” recalled Cobbs, now 84. “I was petrified. I knew there would be consequences.”
Working with a few other students, Johns had lured the principal off campus with a false report of students causing trouble in town. Meanwhile, she distributed a note calling for a schoolwide assembly and requesting that teachers remain in their classrooms. The note was signed “BJ”, which happened to be both Johns’ initials and those of the principal, Boyd Jones.