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Home - School Desegregation

INTRODUCTION


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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.

 

rev. 11/15/2013

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