Black History | The Norfolk 17 School Desegregation

Norfolk 17 18On February 2, 1959, 17 African-American students entered six previously all-white middle and high schools in Norfolk, Virginia. These schools had been closed for five months as the result of Virginia’s massive resistance effort to avoid the desegregation mandated by the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. The white community was forced by federal and local courts to accept desegregation.

 The “Norfolk 17,” as they were called, sustained many hardships for the sake of integration so that other children would have more educational opportunities. They learned first-hand that the white schools had new textbooks, nice furniture, and impressive laboratory equipment, none of which they had at their schools.

Initially, 151 African-American students applied to the all-white schools. After intense testing and interviews, by September 1958 only 17 remained. When the governor ordered the schools closed, these 17 students, along with 10,000 other students, had to find other ways to continue their schooling.

At the First Baptist Church on Bute Street (pictured above) and at a church in Norview, they were trained “for sixteen weeks for their roles as agents of social change. Because nothing could be left to chance, they received instruction in deportment, in handling racial conflict, and in meeting the academic challenges” (Lewis, p. 203).

As they entered the schools for the first time, the Norfolk 17 relied on their training to deal with the racial conflict they encountered — they were spat upon, called names, had things thrown at them, were tripped, and one girl was stabbed. They experienced physical and emotional abuse, while the local and national press reported that there was no violence as expected, and that “it was an eerily calm conclusion to one of the most difficult half-years Norfolk had ever endured” (Parramore, p. 375). In fact, the abuse didn’t stop after the first day — it continued for months and years.

While many of the students have tried to leave their experiences in the past, some have come forward to share their stories at various events and through interviews conducted at Norfolk State University and by various newspaper reporters. In 2002, the City of Norfolk finally honored them with medals for their bravery and courage.

During the spring and summer of 1958, the members of the Norfolk 17 were encouraged by their parents, church members, and local civil rights leaders to join with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in its attempt to enforce the Brown decision in Norfolk. At the time, not one public school in the city or state had been integrated, and the members of the Norfolk 17 took a great risk when they agreed to participate. By July 25, they had joined with 134 other students in an attempt to transfer from their black schools into the white schools of the city. This meant that the Norfolk 17 had to take a battery of academic and psychological tests overseen by the members of the school board. On August 18, the school board announced that all 151 transfer requests were denied. Yet, after meeting with District Court Judge Walter E. Hoffman, the board decided that it would grudgingly admit 17 of the 151 applicants to six of the city’s all-white secondary schools.

Norfolk 17

This was not the end of the story, however. For, months earlier, the state legislature had passed legislation that empowered the governor to close any Virginia public school, which was “threatened” by integration. On September 29, 1958 six of Norfolk’s formerly all-white schools were closed to avoid integration. More than 9,000 white students were kept from school, and the members of the Norfolk 17 were the targets of intense criticism and public scrutiny. They shared the white students’ locked-out status, and they attended school at Bute Street Baptist Church during the winter of 1958.

Fittingly, on the anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s birth, January 19, 1959, the Virginia State Supreme Court and the Federal District Court declared that the school closings in Norfolk were unconstitutional. Two weeks later, on February 2, 1959, the Norfolk 17 became the first African American students to attend the previously all-white schools in the largest school district in the state of Virginia.

The members of the Norfolk 17 faced many difficulties as they entered their new schools. They were spit at, cursed at, belittled, and ostracized. And yet, they met the challenge. Most took solace in their faith in God and his plan for them. They persevered through the hardships, graduated, and went on to achieve great things as members of the larger American community.


About SouthernGirl2

A Native Texan who adores baby kittens, loves horses, rodeos, pomegranates, & collect Eagles. Enjoys politics, games shows, & dancing to all types of music. Loves discussing and learning about different cultures. A Phi Theta Kappa lifetime member with a passion for Social & Civil Justice.
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42 Responses to Black History | The Norfolk 17 School Desegregation

  1. yahtzeebutterfly says:

    Here is a link to a resource page with lesson plans as well as into on the individual Norfolk 17 students:

  2. Yahtc

    Thank you for your hard work and support of this thread. Much obliged.

    • yahtzeebutterfly says:

      YW…..this history has to be kept alive!

      Andrew Heidelberg discusses the historical significance of the Norfolk 17 at this link.

      Here is my transcription of his words:

      You can talk about Little Rock. You can talk about anywhere else you want to, and I’ll tell anyone in America, the South was integrated because of what these 17 kids did in school. Because a lot of people don’t even know (when I talk to kids) the Supreme Court decision for Brown v. Board of Education was based on the 132 briefs that was prepared by Oliver Hill on the conditions,, the deplorable conditions of the schools in VIRGINIA.

      That’s what won the case! But people all over the nation don’t think of that because they think of all the names on the,, but what convinced the United States Supreme Court was the deplorable conditions in Virginia….

      It’s more than, like you said, Norfolk history, Virginia history. This is AMERICAN history! You see, they can talk about, you can talk about Little Rock, anyone you want to, but if you leave out The Norfolk 17, you’ve lost the whole thing about how integration came about because the newspapers used to say “The test case is going to be shown in Virginia. As Virginia goes, so goes the United States.”

      But they don’t talk about that. And, our people here, I think the majority of people, I always thought that the White people never talked about it because they really didn’t want the nation and the world to HOW BAD THEY REALLY WERE.

      See what I’m saying? And that story needs to be told not to make them look bad, but just so our kids know the TRUTH. Tell them THE TRUTH! I mean, it’s over now, but tell them the truth!

  3. THE NORFOLK 17. Scars That Don’t Heal.

    For some of the 17, the threats and hatred they endured left emotional scars that are still very painful 50 years later.

  4. yahtzeebutterfly says:

    The Norfolk 17 recall their experiences in the videos at this link:

    • yahtzeebutterfly says:

      Check out especially the Johnnie the fighter video…she got White students to back down. (Ametia, it ties into what you wrote about White fear.)

    • yahtzeebutterfly says:

      The video entitled “Teachers” tells of the horrid teachers who mistreated them.

  5. yahtzeebutterfly says:

    Patricia Godbolt White passed on to her reward on Friday, January 23 of this year at the age of 72.
    “One of the “Norfolk 17″ passes away”
    Published on Jan 27, 2015:

    Rest in peace Ms. Patricia Godbolt White.

    Thank you for all you gave us toward creating a better world. Yours is a job WELL DONE! God bless you!

  6. yahtzeebutterfly says:

    “Norfolk 17”
    Uploaded on Oct 10, 2008 by WHRO TV
    In 1959, after the City of Norfolk closed its public schools to avoid admitting black students, seventeen brave young African American students entered six all-white schools. A lonely day was a good day on other days, they were yelled at, spat at, called names and followed.

  7. yahtzeebutterfly says:

    Yes, the photos in your article are so powerful.

    The photo of the lone African American student at the front of the auditorium tears at my heart.

    • Ametia says:

      The fear of being near BLACK people sends a message of just how much POWER Black people carry and how helpless and insecure WHITE folks felt.

      Where else would this much fear about black skin come from?

      • yahtzeebutterfly says:

        Thank you for pointing out this truth, Ametia…..this fear thing is so crazy and is still being promoted today through unfair and terribly inaccurate stereotypes that are acted on by LE in their criminally profiling of innocent Blacks. A change MUST be demanded!

      • yahtzeebutterfly says:

        “The fear of being near BLACK people sends a message of just how much POWER Black people carry and how helpless and insecure WHITE folks felt.”

        Ametia, you should have been with me the day I was laughing out loud when I finally understood why one of our Black Trayvon team members often would just post the single word “BOO!!!” to the hateful racists we were dealing with. :)

      • Ametia says:

        BOO! indeed. How can you fear someone whom you’ve never even interacted with? RACISM, BIGOTRY, HATE, it’s ingrained, taught ..

      • LOL @ Yahtc about the word BOO!!

  8. Ametia says:

    This post and gallery is POWERFUL. I’ll need more time to read & process it. Thank you, SG2!

  9. Christina says:

    Had to read this multiple times, what a powerful story. The pictures speak louder than words.

  10. yahtzeebutterfly says:

    “The Norfolk 17”
    Uploaded on Mar 13, 2007 by NBP

  11. yahtzeebutterfly says:

    I so admire and respect the Norfolk 17 students, their strength and determination to carry through their mission to desegregate the high school despite the horrible, abusive treatment they received from White students.

    Were it not for people like them the Brown v The Board of Education ruling would never have changed the way things were and the resistance of the segregationists would have been successful.

    I am inspired to study the Norfolk story more today and will share here some of what I learn.

    Thanks for this great article and accompanying videos!

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