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.