Brief Biography

Barbara was born in Harlem, in New York City, on March 6, 1935. Her parents, Robert and Adele Johns, were natives of Prince Edward County, Virginia. They had come to New York looking for work. When World War II came, and Barbara's father went into the army, her mother took Barbara and her siblings back to Virginia to live on her grandmother's farm. Barbara spent most of her youth living and working on a small tobacco farm.

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author Richard Kluger says this about Barbara's "unheralded emergence" as a leader of the black people in Prince Edward County, Virginia in 1951:

"The blacks [in Prince Edward County] made up a bit more than half the population, but their hopes for obtaining justice from the whites remained nearly as slender and muted as those of their ancestors in bondage a century before. At the time of the events she inspired, this leader was sixteen years old and her beauty was apparent to every eye. She did not claim, as Joan of Ark had, to be inspired by celestial voices. But some pious ones who knew her family well suggest that a messenger of the Lord, in the person of her uncle, who was a man of the cloth, helped inspire her unheralded emergence as a leader of the blacks of Prince Edward County. Her grandmother's second husband, for one, disagrees with that view. He saw her growing up, and he says, 'She had that grit in her herself.'"

Fed up with the deplorable conditions of her segregated high school, Barbara led her classmates in a strike which became a lawsuit against Prince Edward County, and later went to the United States Supreme Court as part of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, the decision which outlawed segregation in schools in the United States.

When a threat was made against Barbara's life, her parents sent her to Montgomery, Alabama for safety, where she lived with her uncle and finished her education. After high school, she attended Spellman College and later Drexel University in Philadelphia.

She married Reverend Powell, raised five children, and worked as a librarian in the Philadelphia school district for 24 years. She died in 1991 in Philadelphia.



The Moton Museum Barbara Johns Biographical page also offers a brief biography.

The Smithsonian has a short biographical sketch of Barbara, including a photograph of Barbara as a young woman with her math teacher.

The Educational Broadcasting System also has a short biography of Barbara.


Website maintained by Teri Kanefield, author of The Girl From the Tar Paper School.