‘Separate but Equal was Never Equal’

October 21, 2004

John Stokes did not know where he or the hundreds of other African-American students who followed were going when they walked out of the decrepit Robert Russa Moton High School building April 23, 1951, but they knew they couldn’t go back.

“We walked out of there on faith,” Stokes told National Public Radio host Tavis Smiley in a recent interview. “We were blessed to be with other students who had the faith in us to lead them out.”

The school walkout and strike engineered by Stokes and his sister and friends would later lead to the case Davis v. Prince Edward County, one of five suits that made up the landmark litigation Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. It was the only one of the five law suits that was student led, Stokes is quick to point out. For more than 45 years — until 1997 — Stokes was quiet about his role in the civil rights movement, but now he frequents high schools, colleges, and universities and lobbies with members of the Virginia General Assembly.

Stokes recently visited Mary Baldwin University to share his moving first-hand experience with students in communication and philosophy classes. The 72-year-old retired educator and principal was invited by Assistant Professor of History Amy Tillerson, who met him at the opening of the Robert Russa Moton Museum — at the site of the former high school where the strike began — while working on her doctoral dissertation.

“Separate but equal was never equal,” Stokes said, elaborating on the stark differences between the buildings and transportation provided for black children and that for white children in the Prince Edward County school system. “We had one high school and tar-paper shacks around it. They had modern, brick buildings. We had potbellied stoves and outhouses. They had heat and running water.”

“When we started the strike, many people — including the local newspapers — said we were playing ‘hookey’ because we didn’t want to go to school,” Stokes continued. “Little did they realize that we could think and analyze and change our situation.”

Stokes was a 19-year-old high school senior when he, his sister, Carrie, Barbara Johns, the niece of civil rights pioneer The Rev. Vernon Johns, and a group of other upperclassmen started meeting, contacting representatives of the NAACP and gathering parent support for the dramatic boycott. His life’s work illustrates his dedication to education. After two years in the United States Army during the Korean War, he earned his undergraduate degree from Virginia State University and started his career as an elementary teacher in Baltimore, Maryland. Stokes later earned his doctorate equivalency from Morgan State University and retired in 1994 as a principal in one of Baltimore’s public schools.

His parting advice for students in Assistant Professor of Communication Bruce Dorries’ class: “You must always remember whose shoulders you are standing on. And on your way up, reach down and lift someone up with you.”

Stokes’ visit was one of several by special guests invited by faculty that have enriched the Mary Baldwin learning environment this semester. Eliot Brenner, a public affairs specialist who has worked as a speechwriter for Dick Cheney and Robert Rubin and currently serves as the public affairs director for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, was brought to Mary Baldwin by professor of political science Gordon Bowen. October 27, controversial scientist and author Harvey Bialy will share his views about what he contends is the absence of a connection between HIV and AIDS. Bialy was invited to speak by Edward Scott, associate professor of philosophy and assistant dean.