The Norfolk 17

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.

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 Driver

lower row: Betty Jean Reed - Johnnie Rouse - Delores Johnson - LaVera Forbes - James Turner Jr. - Lolita Portis - Patricia Turner - Claudia Wellington - Geraldine Talley


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, 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.

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.

Sources of information for sketches of members of the Norfolk 17 presented on this Web site:

  • Gruss, Mike and Philip Walzer. "Pioneers of Progress." (Series: Brown v. Board of Education: 1954-2004). The Virginian-Pilot, February 1, 2004. (Factiva -- link)
  • Mooney, Jeanne. "A reflection of diversity: schools promote awareness of heritages; and some teachers provide living lessons." The Virginian-Pilot, August 15, 2002. (Factiva -- link)
  • Notes from Chrysler Museum program on May 16, 2004, "Celebrating the Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education: Then and Now," by Karen Vaughan.
  • O'Keefe, Carole. "Friends School examines civil rights movement." The Virginian-Pilot, May 27, 2004. (Factiva -- link)
  • Wharton, Tony. "Church recalls its help for students fighting for right 17 got advice, support to integrate." Roanoke Times & World News, January 4, 1998. (Factiva -- link)
  • Kruse, Meredith. "Standing up for history; city recognizes former students for their role on racial front line." The Virginian-Pilot, February 27, 2002. (Lexis-Nexis -- link)
  • Stone, Steve. "'Massive resistance' deepens a racial wound Virginia defies federally mandated desegregation by closing its schools." The Virginian-Pilot, August 29, 1999. (Factiva -- link)
  • "A Turning Point In History ; Event Remembers The "Norfolk 17" Series: Brown V. Board Of Education: 1954-2004," by Nicole Morgan, The Virginian-Pilot, 17 May 2004 (Factiva -- link)

TOP