Civil rights pioneer brings history to life for Stoneleigh Elementary students

Civil rights pioneer John Stokes speaks to students at Stoneleigh Elementary School, in Towson, Nov. 17.

John Stokes, who went on strike with fellow students at Virginia's Robert Russa Moton High School in 1951, to protest inequality between their segregated school and whites-only schools, delivered a brief lesson in the history of America's civil rights movement to about 125 fourth-grade students at Stoneleigh Elementary School Nov. 17.

The students had already learned about Stokes through a textbook, "Reading Wonders," according to fourth-grade reading teacher Michelle Lane. All fourth-grade students in Baltimore County Public Schools learn about Stokes through a English Language Arts unit called "We are the stories we tell" that features the stories of memorable people, such as those connected with historic events, like Stokes, Lane said.


Through the unit, students learned about the use of first-hand and second-hand sources in writing research papers; Stokes' visit was a perfect example of a first-hand, or primary, source, Lane said.

Stokes, who lives in Lanham, in Prince George's County, came to visit Stoneleigh after Lane reached out to him for a visit. He travels the country visiting schools and institutions to speak about his experience fighting segregation as a student. He said he usually speaks no more than twice a month. He was paid for his visit to Stoneleigh, in Towson; both school officials and Stokes declined to say how much.


Before the visit, students wrote a few paragraphs each about why Stokes is a memorable person, citing his strike against poor school conditions in April 1951, when he was a 19-year-old senior at what he described as an overcrowded school with no cafeteria, and not even a complete roof.

"We knew we were being programmed for failure," Stokes said.

The Commonwealth of Virginia has recognized Stokes, now 84, as an African-American "Trailblazer." Stokes helped lead a strike by all students at his high school, as they refused to return to class until construction began on a new high school for African-Americans, according to the Library of Virginia website. Acting on advice from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the students changed their demand, asking for the integration of all Prince Edward County schools instead.

A lawsuit was filed on the students' behalf, which was later combined with the landmark civil rights case, Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, through which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled public school segregation unconstitutional in May 1954, according to the library's account of Stokes' history.

Stoneleigh students gathered for an assembly to listen to Stokes on Thursday afternoon in the school's cafeteria. Stokes spoke about the strike and poor school conditions, which students had learned about in lessons before his visit. He also focused on illustrating to students how difficult segregation was for black citizens.

He started his speech by talking with students about the phrase "separate but equal," a policy that allowed segregation in schools, trains, buses, hotels, theaters and other public places, before that practice was ruled unconstitutional in the Brown case.

"Separate but what?" he asked students three times, each time urging a louder response of the last word, "equal."

Then he paused for a few seconds.


"It was never, ever, equal," he said.

To further illustrate that point, Stokes set up chairs to resemble two buses with ten seats each, and picked ten students to participate in a "bus ride" from Boston to Alabama. Students were given yellow or pink cards to indicate their race in the hypothetical scenario. As the trip began, students with yellow cards sat next to students with pink cards. But as the "bus" entered the south the students with yellow cards were made to move to the back of the bus, and several were kicked out to make room for riders with pink cards, illustrating the segregation-era practice of moving black riders to the rear of buses, forcing them off buses to make room for white riders and prohibiting black riders from sitting with whites.

Stokes also asked a black student and a white student to come to the front of the assembly. The students held up their arms, skin exposed, as Stokes told a story about a doctor he once spoke with who reminded him that, beneath the skin, humans are the same.

Stokes, who retired from a career in education with Baltimore City Schools in 1994, after 32 years, also urged the students to research and find information themselves.

In 2008 National Geographic published a book, Students on Strike, written by Stokes and two others, which discusses how the strike at Robert Russa Moton High School was planned and executed. Stokes signed several copies of the book for teachers and students.

At the end of the visit, Lane said she was very pleased, adding that she could sense that her students were energized about the topic of civil rights.


Stokes said he can't get into the hearts of people, but can get into their minds, adding that he believed that he accomplished that with the fourth grade students Thursday.

At the end of the event, dozens of students swarmed around Stokes for the chance to shake his hand. Though he has traveled the country, he couldn't remember a response quite that enthusiastic, he said.