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Model of Virginia civil rights figure Barbara Johns approved by Commission for Historical Statues

A tentative mockup of the Barbara Rose Johns statue was first unveiled in January 2023. (Scott Elmquist / VPM News)
A tentative mockup of the Barbara Rose Johns statue was first unveiled in January 2023. (Scott Elmquist / VPM News)

Steven Weitzman has been working on a full-scale clay model of Virginia civil rights leader Barbara Johns at his Brentwood, Maryland studio for more than a year.

“If you read the story about  Barbara Johns, it’s extraordinary. So heroic,” the artist said.

This story was reported and written by VPM News

Johns led a strike of more than 400 students from the segregated Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville on April 23, 1951 — when she was 16.

At the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., each state selects two figures to be placed in the National Statuary Hall. Virginia’s Commission for Historical Statues in the United States Capitol decided to remove its statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in 2020.

In February, the commission approved Weitzman’s model of the Johns statue.

The statue depicts Johns standing at a podium, holding a book over her head and calling on her classmates to walk out of school in protest of substandard classroom conditions.

Julie Langan, director of Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources, was part of the decision-making process to honor Johns.

“We had 83 different people nominated, and those included Pocahontas, Maggie Walker, Booker T. Washington, Oliver Hill. So, it was an august group of people,” Langan said. “At the end of the day, it was easy to reach consensus.”

The commission hoped the new figure would help reflect the state’s diversity.

“If you’ve ever been to the Statuary Hall collections, it’s a lot of old white men, and I think the commission was looking for a subject that really represents Virginia today,” Langan said.

Joan Johns Cobbs is Johns’ younger sister and was in the Moton auditorium in 1951.

“I was so shocked when Barbara got on stage and started talking. I slid down in my seat as far as I could go, because I didn’t know what she was going to be saying next,” Johns Cobbs said.

117 Moton students signed on as plaintiffs in the Brown v. Board of Education  Supreme Court case,  which ended schools’ “separate but equal” practice.

For her safety, Johns finished her senior year in Alabama, where she lived with members of her extended family. After graduating, she attended Spelman College in Atlanta, got married, had five children and worked as a librarian.

She died in 1991.

Johns Cobbs said she and her family are honored that their sister is receiving recognition.

“I think Virginia is trying to correct some of its inequities,” Johns Cobbs said. “I think the fact that they chose her was one way they are trying to rectify what happened in the past.”

Next, the clay model Weitzman worked on for a year goes to the  Architect of the Capitol for approval. If accepted, it’ll be sent to a foundry in Chester, Pennsylvania, to be cast in bronze.

Langan said the statue could be displayed in the Capitol by 2025.