John Arthur Stokes

John Arthur Stokes

Prince Edward County
Civil rights activist

Born in Kingsville, Prince Edward County, John Arthur Stokes grew up in the Jim Crow South, a time and place in which public schools were segregated by race. He attended Robert Russa Moton High School, the county’s only school for African Americans, located in Farmville. The one-story school was built for 180 students, but there were more than 450 pupils when he began his senior year in 1950. The school had only eight classrooms, an office, and an auditorium, but no gymnasium, cafeteria, or science lab and few educational resources.

Recognizing the inequalities between Moton and whites-only schools, Stokes, with his classmate Barbara Johns, helped lead a strike by all the students in April 1951. They walked out and refused to return to class until construction began on a new high school for African Americans. With advice from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the students decided to demand integration of all county schools, rather than seek only a new, separate school. In May Davis et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Va., et al. was filed on their behalf to integrate the county schools. The U.S. District Court in Richmond rejected their lawsuit. On appeal, the case was combined with other lawsuits under Brown v. Board of Education, and on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that public school segregation was unconstitutional.

A year after graduating from Virginia State University, Stokes became an educator in Baltimore, Maryland. In 2008 the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial was placed at the State Capitol, with likenesses of student protestors commemorating the Moton school strike. Stokes lives in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

Nominated by Sally Miller’s fourth-grade class (2009–2010), William Fox Elementary School, Richmond

WATCH (or read the transcript of) a March 21, 2003, interview with Stokes from VCU Libraries Digital Collection, Voices of Freedom produced by the Virginia Civil Rights Movement Video Initiative.

For Educators