The Girl from the Tar Paper School
When she was reading Richard Kluger's Simple Justice, Teri
Kanefield was inspired by learning about Barbara Rose Johns. "I've
always been drawn to stories about strong and innovative girls and
young women, particularly those growing up in times and places that
did not encourage them to be strong and innovative. For a teenager to
do what Barbara Johns did was astonishing. For a black teenager from
a poor rural area in the segregated south in 1951 to do what she did
was beyond astonishing." We are truly blessed that she took on the
research and writing of a book, The Girl from the Tar Paper School, so
readers all over can share in her astonishment.
When Johns was a student at the Robert R. Moton High School for
black students in Farmville, Virginia, Jim Crow was in full swing and
separate but equal was anything but. "Temporary" classrooms made of
tar paper covered wood couldn't even keep the rain off students who
needed umbrellas inside. Pot bellied wood stoves still were the only
source of heat. In contrast, whites only Farmville High boasted
amenities like modern heating, a cafeteria, and an auditorium with a
sound system. This inequity was justified by the idea that the
whites, being richer, were paying more into the system and deserved
better. (Sounds to me a lot like how we continue to rationalize
property tax based school funding.)
When Johns talked to her favorite teacher about the injustice of
the situation, she was asked, "Why don't YOU do something about it?".
She felt seriously let down, like her concerns had been dismissed.
Adults had been doing their best to get more adequate education for
black students. The all white school board had been finding one
reason after another to delay doing anything.
Pretty much anyone in her situation would have given up. Johns
had an epiphany. "As I lay in my bed that night I prayed for help.
That night, whether in a dream or whether I was awake--but I felt I
was awake--a plan began to formulate in my mind, a plan I felt was
divinely inspired, because I hadn't been able to think of anything til
It was an audicious plan, an extremely bold plan, a plan that
carried much peril for Johns and everyone she cared about. But it was
a plan that made people come alive with hope even after a cross
burning. The Girl from the Tar Paper School juxtaposes this powerful
story with insightful details about Johns' life and rare period
photographs. It is a must read for anyone who carries a heavy heart,
burdened by the rampant injustice of the world we find ourselves in,
and wants to strive for better.
On a personal note, I read a sentence in this book that sent little
lightning bolts through every cell in my central nervous system.
"Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing as gentle as strength."
This is so different from the testosterone-laden version of strength
today that often makes government the "adult" version of school
playground bullying. But it is the juxtaposition of strength and
gentleness that, in my mind, epitomizes true and valid leadership. It
was on the program at Johns' funeral. My greatest hope is that by the
time I pass I will have earned those words.
A great big shout out goes out to all leaders, past and present,
including my mentor, Dr. Betsy Webb, for whom those words would ring
Julia Emily Hathaway
Sent from my iPod