70 years ago, the Farmville student walkout helped bring an end to school segregation. This week, we remember.

Barbara Johns used to pray: “God, please help us. We are your children, too.”

In the early 1950s, Johns was a student at the all-Black Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville.

The building barely qualified as a school. It had so few classrooms that teachers held classes in parked buses and in tar-paper shacks on the grounds.

On April 23, 1951, 16-year-old Johns turned her prayers into action. She led a student walkout to protest the school’s condition. The Moton case became part of Brown v. Board of Education, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled three years later that segregated schools were unconstitutional.

On Friday, the 70th anniversary of the walkout, the Robert Russa Moton Museum is hosting “Moton Live 2021,” a 10-hour virtual commemoration. The day remembers the student protest but marks the 20th anniversary of the opening of the museum in the renovated Moton school.

Friday also marks Barbara Johns Day in Virginia. Johns died in 1991.

The event will include pre-recorded remarks from Gov. Ralph Northam and live talks with civil rights activist Virgil A. Wood and Margot Lee Shetterly, author of “Hidden Figures.” Shetterly’s 2016 bestseller dug into the history and lives of African American women mathematicians and analysts who worked at present-day NASA’s Langley Research Center beginning in the 1940s. One of the main characters in the movie adaptation was Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, who worked as a math teacher at Moton before moving to Hampton.

Friday’s program will have panel discussions throughout the day, including one with former Prince Edward County students who will recall how their lives changed in 1959. That year the county closed all of its schools instead of allowing them to integrate. They remained shuttered for five years.

Cameron Patterson, executive director of the Moton Museum, grew up in Lynchburg about an hour’s drive from Farmville. His parents and grandparents knew some of the people who had to leave Prince Edward and move to Lynchburg to find jobs or enroll their children in school.

“Moton Live” is a fundraiser for the museum, but the programming will also connect the past to the present, Patterson said.

“There are a lot of lessons that are offered in terms of how these students used the tools of constitutional democracy to really bring about change,” Patterson said. “It was through their organizing, it was through their activism and those are lessons we are able to use to confront present-day issues.”

The virtual program replaces an annual community banquet held at nearby Longwood University.

Patterson studied history at the Longwood, and there he learned more about how school-age children brought national attention to the rural Farmville community.

That April 23, 1951, Johns led a group of students out of school and down Main Street to the school superintendent’s office. They wanted a new school with an auditorium, gym and science labs with equipment, like the white students had at Farmville High down the road.

Later that afternoon, Johns called NAACP attorney Oliver Hill and asked that the organization get involved. She told him what the students had done and they were refusing to go back to school.

Hill and a colleague traveled to Farmville and met with the parents and students. The civil rights organization agreed to take on the case as long as the families would fight for integration, not just a new school.

They agreed, and the students returned to school two weeks after their walkout.

The NAACP combined Moton with school cases from Delaware, the District of Columbia, Kansas and South Carolina.

The Virginia case was the only one started by children and more than 75% of the plaintiffs of the Brown lawsuit were Virginia students.

Johns started receiving death threats and had to move to Alabama and live with relatives.

Decades later, attorney Hill said that the Farmville court case should have carried Johns’ name. Instead, they had listed the plaintiff’s names alphabetically and the case is officially known as Dorothy E. Davis, et al v. County School Board of Prince Edward County et al. Hill died in 2007. Johns later married, settled in Philadelphia and worked as a librarian before her death from cancer.

The Capitol Square Civil Rights Memorial in Richmond honors Johns; a state office building is also named after her. Patterson, at the Moton Museum, hopes that the virtual event will bring a bigger audience to Moton’s story.

Once the pandemic ends, he wants the annual banquet to return, “but we hope the virtual event will become an important part of what we do moving forward.”

Visit motonmuseum.org for more information, register for the event or make a donation. The event will stream on the museum’s Facebook and YouTube channels and at motonmuseum.org/live/stream.

Denise M. Watson, 757-446-2504, denise.watson@pilotonline.com