Belvoir marks Black History Month with special guest
February 12, 2009
By Paul Bello
- Speaker describes experiences growing up in the South
FORT BELVOIR, Va. Aca,!" In John Stokes' own words, he waited more than 50 years to give his eyewitness account of a student-led strike at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Va., April 23, 1951.
It wasn't until his 2007 book, "Students on Strike: Jim Crow, Civil Rights, Brown and Me," that Stokes went into detail about the event that helped end separate schooling for blacks and whites Aca,!" not only in Virginia Aca,!" but across the nation.
For Black History Month, Stokes took center stage at Fort Belvoir's Community Center Tuesday, when he described his experiences growing up in the South and how a student-strike committee he planned would set in motion one of the most powerful movements in American history.
"As a young boy, my parents taught me to smile and laugh a lot. Over the years, I learned that it was to keep me from crying," Stokes told the audience. "At that age, I was afraid to simply walk home after school. Those were very bad times.
According to Stokes, the high school was built for 180 students, yet nearly 450 black students attended classes there. The building lacked running water, indoor plumbing and a cafeteria, heated only by a small, wood-burning stove.
As conditions worsened, Stokes formed a group that would fight back against the school district. When the superintendent failed to meet with them to discuss the situation, Stokes and his fellow students had enough. It was time to act.
The group painstakingly persuaded teachers, parents and the rest of the student body to support a walkout until conditions improved. Due to their efforts, the NAACP took notice and filed several lawsuits on behalf of the group.
Ultimately, Stokes said this would become part of the historic Brown vs. Board of Education ruling of the Supreme Court and subsequently end segregation in the U.S.
"I never dreamed of being famous. We just had a passion for education and we wanted things to be fair," Stokes said. "It wasn't until it was all over I learned to not look at a person's skin color, but rather their heart. That's what we need to remember."
Stokes, who served two years in the Army and was stationed at Belvoir during the early 1950s, received a standing ovation.
"It's because of people like Mr. Stokes that we have unity in this country," Command Sgt. Maj. Allison Smith said at the event's conclusion. "He faced the challenges and he won. For that, we're all extremely grateful."