Civil rights pioneer Barbara Johns to replace Lee statue in US Capitol

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced Wednesday that Barbara Rose Johns, a civil rights pioneer, is set to represent the commonwealth in the U.S. Capitol’s statuary hall — replacing Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

In 1951, 16-year-old Johns led a student walkout at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville to protest the poor conditions of her all-Black school when compared to the all-white school nearby. According to historians, her protest was a spark to the desegregation movement in the U.S.

The Commission of Historical Statues in the U.S. Capitol selected Johns months after Northam ordered the Virginia panel to replace the Lee statue this summer.

“As a teenager, Barbara Johns bravely led a protest that defied segregation and challenged the barriers that she and her African American peers faced, ultimately dismantling them,” Northam said in a statement.

“I am proud that her statue will represent Virginia in the U.S. Capitol, where her idealism, courage, and conviction will continue to inspire Virginians, and Americans, to confront inequities and fight for meaningful change now and for generations to come.”

The commission picked Johns from a list of five historic figures submitted by Virginia residents.

On Wednesday, Northam said his proposed budget set aside $500,000 for the statue of Johns. If approved by the General Assembly, the new sculpture will stand beside President George Washington — Virginia’s second U.S. Capitol statue.

“This has been a truly humbling experience,” said Del. Jeion Ward in a news release. “Throughout each step in the selection process, we heard the thoughts and opinions from the public as well as from our diverse committee members. I am proud of the decision we made as a Commonwealth.”

This latest statue change comes after a summer of racial unrest and reckoning in the U.S. that prompted the removal of many statues and symbols honoring the Confederacy across the country and Virginia, specifically.

The Lee statue, which has stood in the U.S. Capitol since 1909, is the third Lee sculpture set to be removed in the last few months. The statues of the Confederate general in downtown Richmond and in the Virginia state capitol are also being removed.

The Lee statue will be removed from the U.S. Capitol this week, according to Virginia officials.

The Commission will now move to select a sculptor for the Barbara Johns statue.

Luke Garrett

Luke Garrett is a D.C. native dedicated to journalism. He is a reporter and the creator, host and producer of the original WTOP podcast, “DMV Download.” The podcast debuted in 2022. On the show, Garrett takes a weekly look at the biggest stories and ideas in the D.C. region.

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