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
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.
The Norfolk 17 outside First Baptist
Church on Bute Street in Norfolk, VA
upper row: Andrew
Heidelberg - Louis Cousins - Patricia
Godbolt - Carol
Wellington - Reginald
Young - Alveraze
Frederick Gonsouland - Edward
Jordan - Olivia
lower row: Betty
Jean Reed - Johnnie
Rouse - Delores
Johnson - LaVera
Forbes - James
Turner Jr. - Lolita
Portis - Patricia
Turner - Claudia
Wellington - Geraldine
Resolution of the School Board of the City of Norfolk
September 17, 1958
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,
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.
The Old Dominion University Libraries wish to honor these 17
students for the sacrifices they made: "... without their
'voice' the story of Norfolk integration crisis will not be
fleshed out. These individuals represent a crucial piece of
the historical puzzle, and their story needs to be told, because
until now historians have neglected their experience" (Nichols,
p. 83n). Many of their "voices" have been preserved
through videotaped oral history interviews by Norfolk State
University as part of "The Brown Decision in Norfolk, Virginia."
By clicking on any of the names, you will learn a little bit
more about their experiences.
|2008/09 marks the 50th anniversary of this historic event. Interviews, news articles, documentaries and various city-wide commemorations are providing deserved recognition to the Norfolk 17 and others whose lives were changed forever by the school desegregation crisis.