Laurel Ridge Elementary, Falls Church High Students Recognized for Nominating Black Virginians for Highway Markers

October 29, 2020

A group of 52 students from Laurel Ridge Elementary School and one student from Falls Church High School have been recognized by Governor Ralph Northam for nominating Black Virginians to be recognized on highway markers throughout the state. The students—who nominated Barbara Johns, Ona Judge, William H. Carney, Katherine Johnson, and “Angela”—selected historically significant Black Virginians for the Governor’s inaugural Black History Month Historical Marker Contest.

Of the new highway markers to be installed, five were nominated by students from across Virginia.
The markers will highlight people, places, or events tied to African American civil rights, education, health, or Civil War and Reconstruction-era history.

Former Laurel Ridge school-based technology specialist Maura Keaney—now at Kings Glen Elementary—led the fourth-grade students in a yearlong, blended learning scavenger hunt called History Hunters. In addition to challenging students to find Virginia history all around, students were given points for discovering highway markers. During their research, Keaney said, “they asked why there were hundreds and hundreds of markers for people who fought to preserve slavery but nothing about Barbara Johns, who set into motion events that improved lives not only for generations of children in Virginia but also for the entire country.” The students even researched the steps necessary to get a historical marker erected and learned it required approval from local legislators and a hefty fee. Then the Black History Month Historical Marker Contest was announced.

“Learning about their lives gave me hope to find solutions of equal rights, racism, and opportunities for everyone,” said Javier Rodriguez Aragon.  

“I thought Barbara Johns deserves a historical marker because she truly changed history by leading a strike against unequal segregated schools. She deserves to have her name on a marker for being brave and standing up for what's right,” said Natalia Torres. 

 “I think Barbara Johns deserved a history marker because of the things she did to help the social justice movement. I'm honestly surprised she didn't have one already,” said Evan Bartoletti.

“At 16 years old, she was able to lead a student strike at R.R. Moton High School for equal education so that they would let all races of kids be able to get equal education. I think that’s pretty cool,” said Tiger Richardson.

Laurel Ridge students wrote individual nominations to nominate these three Virginians:

  • Barbara Rose Johns (1935-91) at age 16 led a student walkout to protest conditions at Farmville’s segregated and “vastly inferior” Robert Russa Moton High School. The resulting NAACP lawsuit seeking to end segregation, Davis v. Prince Edward, was the only student-initiated case consolidated into the U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education (1954), in which the court ruled public school segregation unconstitutional (Prince Edward County). 
  • Ona Judge (ca. 1773-1848) was a woman born into slavery at Mount Vernon. After George Washington became president, Judge escaped during one of Washington’s many extended residences in Philadelphia as president. She successfully resisted Washington’s attempts to recover her and ultimately married and raised a family in New Hampshire (Fairfax County).
  • Sergeant William H. Carney (1840-1908) was born into slavery in Norfolk, later gained his freedom and settled in Massachusetts around 1856. In 1863, he enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment and fought at Fort Wagner near Charleston. In May 1900, he received the Medal of Honor for his actions while experiencing heavy fire and serious wounds during the battle.

A Falls Church High School student, Taylor Forrest, nominated two Virginians:

  • Katherine Johnson, an American mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics as a NASA employee were critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S. crewed spaceflights. Johnson’s role was chronicled in the film, “Hidden Figures.” (Hampton)
  • "Angela,” one of 350 enslaved Angolans and the first African woman brought to Jamestown in 1619; her name is still on the records in 1625. As a slave, she served as skilled labor and contributed to the colony’s recovery from starvation and drought. (Jamestown)

Laurel Ridge students Dahlia Cohen, Kenzie Ngo, and Cherianne Truong also nominated Katherine Johnson.

Students nominating Barbara Rose Johns included Zoe Adams, Serena Anmuth, Evan Bartoletti, Nicholas Belmonti, Madailein Bender, Ethan Burke, Caleb Burley, Logan Carney, Grace Christensen, Emily Close, Dahlia Cohen, Holly Cotton, Kathryn DiePietro, Alexia Donohue, Danny Espinoza, Alexander Fenn, Lily Fogarty, Georgia Heatherman, Amara Hemrick, Jaelyn Hernandez, Christopher Justice, Noah Klein, Elise Larson, Maya McKnight, Mason Medrano, Diego Meruvio Rojas, Zoe Miller, Charles Murray, Kenzie Ngo, Brandon Nguyen, Will Nguyen, Ilona Osorio Daza, Zavier Owens, Naya Parks, Tomas Pena, Dominic Presidio, David Rah, Annabel Reed, Charles Richardson, Javier Rodriguez Aragon, Leah Rudd, Mario Saravia, Bryce Schaffling, Hannah Scott, Scott Shelby, Olivia Szydlik, Harlan Taylor, Natalia Torres, Kiptyn Trieu, Tessa Tritten, Cherianne Truong, and Karen Wheeler.

Students nominating Ona Judge included Grace Christensen, Holly Cotton, and Tessa Tritten.

Students nominating William H. Carney included Madailein Bender, Holly Cotton, Danny Espinoza, Hugh Keaney, Charles Murray, Naya Parks, and Javier Rodriguez Aragon. 

The Barbara Johns marker resulted from the Black History Month Historical Marker Contest that Governor Northam announced in February. The contest encouraged schools to feature a different African American historical marker each day of February, provided teachers with resources to guide history discussions, promoted Black History Month events around the Commonwealth, and initiated a competition for students to submit ideas for new historical markers to the Virginia Department of Historical Resources. Over 285 students submitted ideas, including more than 60 students who suggested a marker be erected for Barbara Johns.

More information about the new Black Historical Highway Markers in Virginia is available online

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