On 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.
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.
Here is a link to a resource page with lesson plans as well as into on the individual Norfolk 17 students:
This link provides the timeline of the desegregation events in Norfolk, VA:
Thank you for your hard work and support of this thread. Much obliged.
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:
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.
I was aching as I listened to her painful recollections. So heartbreaking.
These students, Ruby Bridges, Dorothy Counts, and the Little Rock Nine paved the way for us. They took the brunt of Jim Crow.
and The Clinton 12 in Clinton, TN
“The Clinton 12”
“The Clinton 12.wmv”
“The Story of Desegregation in Clinton, Tennessee”
The Norfolk 17 recall their experiences in the videos at this link:
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.)
The video entitled “Teachers” tells of the horrid teachers who mistreated them.
The teachers were cruel beyond description.
this is one of the things I totally disagreed with in regards to desegregation. The black kids were bused to white neighborhoods and schools where the environment was so HOSTILE. The teachers, the so-called adults, were terrorizing these kids too.
Our kids were subjected to a culture and environment that hated them. They were taken out of their own neighborhoods.
Some scars will never heal.
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!
god Bless Ms. Patricia Godbolt White.
RIP Ms. Patricia Godbolt White.
Here is Patricia Godbolt Whites’s graduation picture. (I think it might just appear as a link. I wish we could have it here on this post.)
” Patricia Godbolt, first black student graduated from an integrated Norfolk, Virginia, high school, poses for a photo June 9, 1960, shortly before she received a diploma with honors from Norview High School. She was one of seven black students admitted to all white schools the previous year under pressure of a Federal court order. (AP Photo/Neal V. Clark Jr.)
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.
Thank you for this, Yahtc.
YW, and thanks for inspiring me to research this story today.
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.
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?
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!
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. :)
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!!
This post and gallery is POWERFUL. I’ll need more time to read & process it. Thank you, SG2!
Had to read this multiple times, what a powerful story. The pictures speak louder than words.
Hi Christina, welcome to 3 Chics. yes, this is a power story and the images speak volumes.
Our children are not being properly educated about the history of America.
It’s up to all of us to keep this history out there.
Yes indeed! These kids endured the abuse everyday for 4 years.
Yes and the Norfolk story in particular I have not heard of.
The Governor shut down the school!!! That’s some serious hate.
“The Norfolk 17”
Uploaded on Mar 13, 2007 by NBP
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!
Thank you, Yahtc.