School Desegregation in Norfolk,  Virginia





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On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas declared segregated schools contrary to the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution and thus, unconstitutional. Within the next few years, Virginia, along with other southern states, mobilized for action against what they perceived as a violation of states’ rights. To offset the court’s decision, Virginia’s General Assembly embarked on a program of "Massive Resistance." Massive Resistance, a term coined by Harry F. Byrd, Sr., the leader of Virginia’s Democratic Organization and a leader among southern Congressmen and Senators, was a series of legislative enactments designed to "defend" Virginia’s public school system from integration. The major provision decreed that the Governor must close integrated schools. The schools would not be entitled to or receive any funds from the State Treasury to operate; rather, the community could ask to reopen them but would need to use local funds for operation.

In 1958, Federal District Courts in Virginia ordered schools in Arlington, Charlottesville, Norfolk, and Warren County to desegregate. To circumvent the courts’ orders and prevent integration, Governor J. Lindsay Almond, Jr., on September 8, 1958, closed the schools in Warren County. Meanwhile, in the hopes of finding a solution, Charlottesville and Norfolk postponed the opening of their schools. But, on September 19, Almond closed two schools in Charlottesville, and on September 27, he closed another six schools in Norfolk. The localities of Warren County and Charlottesville, given the size of their school system, were able to provide adequate schooling, either private or otherwise, during the crisis. In Norfolk, however, the citizens were not prepared for the displacement of 10,000 students.

For five months, Norfolk parents sought alternate venues for their children. Lawsuits were filed to reopen the schools. Groups organized to fight the governor's order. A nationally televised program brought unwanted attention to Norfolk's crisis. Throughout all the city turmoil, in a makeshift school in the basement of First Baptist Church on Bute Street, 17 African-American children were being taught academics as well as lessons on how to survive the worst discrimination they would ever face. They were the "Norfolk 17," preparing to integrate six previously all-white Norfolk public schools. After both the State Supreme Court and the Federal District Court struck down the Massive Resistance laws, the schools reopened on February 2, 1959, and the Norfolk 17 took their place in history.

The collections that follow document the activities of several prominent citizens in their efforts to reopen the public schools of Norfolk, Virginia during the Massive Resistance crisis. These collections are few in number, but rich in material, covering the activities of the Norfolk School Board, the Norfolk Committee on Public Schools, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuits initiated to reopen the schools, and a teacher. While the majority of the collections concern the events of the school closings in Norfolk, many also contain information on Virginia's reaction to the Supreme Court's decision as a whole. Included in these collections are correspondence, reports, legal papers, petitions, press releases, financial records, publications, newspaper clippings, photographs, and oral histories.

It is important to note that these collections primarily represent the reactions of the white community in Norfolk. More primary research materials need to be made available to represent all viewpoints. Interviews with the Norfolk 17 students, available through oral histories in the Norfolk State University collection and through recent newspaper articles, are a positive step in this direction.

It is also important to note that "by the late 1960s, the vast majority of Norfolk schools remained either 90 percent white or 90 percent black." In 1971, busing was the new approach to desegregation. While the benefits of busing have always created controversy, "integrating Norfolk schools has remained an elusive goal." (Bradley)

A TIMELINE of events and an extensive list of RESOURCES are available for those who wish to research this time period more fully.

Collections of the ODU Libraries relating to Massive Resistance and school desegregation in Norfolk, Virginia

Archie L. Boswell Papers, 1958-1960.

Norfolk attorney who represented the plaintiffs in two important cases: the James v. Duckworth case was initiated to prevent the closing of all schools above 6th grade, which included black secondary schools; James v. Almond was initiated to reopen the Norfolk schools. Includes correspondence, briefs, trial proceedings, court papers, background material, and newspaper clippings. [Special Collections MG-59]

Henry E. Howell, Jr. Papers, 1948-1977.

Ran for the House of Delegates in 1959, an election in which the issue of Massive Resistance played a key role. Includes material relating to the campaign. Also contains material relating to the resister ticket of McKendree-Bonney-Sutton. [Special Collections MG-1]

Paul T. Schweitzer Papers, 1957-1976.

A member of the Norfolk School Board (1952-1960) during the desegregation crisis and the Norfolk City Council (1960-1968). Collection includes correspondence and publications documenting the attitudes of Norfolk and the activities of the School Board during the school closings of 1958. Of note are the files of correspondence from people throughout the United States either supporting or criticizing his efforts to reopen the schools. [Special Collections MG-16]

A.E.S. Stephens Papers, 1949-1961.

Lieutenant Governor of the Commonwealth (1952-1961) during the Supreme Court's decision and the passing of the Massive Resistance legislation. Collection contains correspondence files dating to 1955 that document his attitude and the attitudes of Virginians across the commonwealth on the subject of segregated schools. [Special Collections MG-19]

Forrest P. White Papers, 1952-1963.

President and active member of the Norfolk Committee for Public Schools, organized to preserve the public school system of Norfolk and reopen the closed schools. Material includes both personal papers and the institutional records of the committee, including financial and legal records, correspondence, speeches, statements of purpose, position reports, letters to the editor, articles and newspaper clippings. [Special Collections MG-5]

Margaret White Papers, 1953-1976.

A teacher in the Norfolk school system during the desegregation crisis who was active in the effort to reopen the schools. Collection primarily relates to the CBS documentary, The Lost Class of '59 , of which Norfolk was the focus and the follow-up documentary by CBS, The Other Face of Dixie, a report on the situation of newly integrated schools. Includes correspondence, newspapers clippings, and magazine articles. [Special Collections MG-20]

Women's Council for Interracial Cooperation, 1945-1960.

Founded in 1945 as an interracial organization designed to address concerns with education, health, and housing among the Afro-American community. Includes correspondence, the organization's constitution, annual reports, minutes, speeches, programs, membership lists, pamphlets and booklets, magazine articles, newspaper clippings and photographs. [Special Collections MG-54]

Oral History Collection

Includes interviews with: Vivian Carter-Mason, the founder and active member of the Women's Council for Interracial Cooperation; A. Rufus Tonelson, principal of Maury High School during the crisis; Mark Schweitzer, the son of Paul T. Schweitzer; Ruth James, lead litigant in the court cases initiated to reopen Norfolk's closed schools; and, Edith White, the wife of Forrest P. White.

Other ODU Collections

The Papers of Stanley Clay Walker (MG-28), Norfolk School Board Member in 1959, and the Papers of William Frederick Duckworth (MG-45), former mayor of Norfolk, also contain materials relating to massive resistance and school desegregation.

Massive Resistance Printed Materials, 1958-1960 (MG-98) consists of 20 folders of regional and national newspaper clippings covering the Massive Resistance movement and public reaction to the desegregation and subsequent closing of some of Norfolk’s public schools. Also discussed are state and local politicians such as Governor Lindsay Almond, Jr., who ordered the closing of Norfolk schools that enrolled African-American students, and Mayor William Fred Duckworth, who opposed desegregating the public schools. Some of the clippings discuss the fate of those students whose graduation was put in jeopardy by the school closing, known as "The Lost Class of '59."

A new collection of documents, the Norfolk Public Schools Desegregation Papers, 1922-2006 (MG-92), was recently acquired by the Old Dominion University Libraries. It includes correspondence, school board resolutions, inter-district memoranda, press releases, district maps, and school calendars from the late 1950s covering school closings, busing in the 1970s, and the end of busing in the mid-1980s. The collection is housed in Special Collections but will become available digitally within the next year.

Related Collections

The Virginia Heritage Project (VHP) of the Virtual Library of Virginia (VIVA) has identified materials in Virginia university collections related to the political aspects of massive resistance and/or massive resistance as it relates to other counties in Virginia, primarily Prince Edward County whose schools were closed for five years (Link).  The Virginia Historical Society and other agencies have made materials available digitally, many commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. The materials in our collection enhance existing digital collections, creating a broader view of Virginia’s school desegregation process because many of our collections introduce a more personal and subjective focus.