Last Sunday evening Confederate General Robert E. Lee lost his position of representing the Commonwealth as part of the Statuary Hall Collection at the United States Capitol. A copy of a statue of General Lee by sculptor Edward Valentine had been standing in the Capitol since 1909 most recently in the Crypt where a statue representing each of the thirteen original states stood. General Lee’s statue was carted off just as statues of him have been taken down across the state including the huge equestrian statue of him that will be taken down from Monument Avenue in Richmond as soon as lawsuits about it are resolved.
The other statue representing Virginia in the Capitol Statuary Collection is a copy of Houdon’s statue that stands in the Rotunda of the State Capitol in Richmond of the Father of Our Country George Washington. It was Washington’s strong leadership and the time-honored precedents he set that helped the new nation to get started. Lee on the other hand had led an insurrection that attempted to break away from the nation and establish the Confederate States as a separate country that allowed slavery of human beings!
Who else could represent Virginia as the second statue allowed by each state in the Statuary Collection? The Governor appointed a commission to answer that question. After their public hearings and deliberations, the commission concluded that the appropriate person should be Barbara Johns. For too long a time many Virginians have not known of the heroic acts that Barbara Johns did to help set the course for recent history in Virginia. Her statue is already on the Virginia Capital grounds in the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial recognizing her leadership in bringing about changes in the unequal ways that white and black schools were funded in Virginia.
The Supreme Court case Brown v Board of Education in 1954 that desegregated public schools included a Virginia case that came about as a result of a boycott of Prince Edward County Schools led by 16-year-old Barbara Johns. White children in Prince Edward County went to school in a new brick building while Black children went to school in a tar paper shanty with limited heating. NAACP lawyers Oliver Hill and Spotswood Robinson took her grievance all the way to the Supreme Court and won!
Barbara Johns will join Rosa Parks who was the first Black woman to have a full-size statue in the U.S. Capitol. As Virginians we can be proud to show our children and grandchildren the statue of Barbara Johns representing us and explain to them the important role she played in standing up to injustices and bringing about significant civil rights changes in our state.