A City Separated
A new book helps our understanding of Norfolk's harsh yet real story of desegregation
The Norfolk 17 were the first African American students to enter the once heavily segregated Norfolk Public School System
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Andrew Heidelberg wondered what the commotion was about.
“Why are all of these guys walking past the shower, looking at me,” he asked a white friend one day after PE.
“Andy, I don’t think you’d believe me if I told you,” his buddy said.
“They’ve been told that black people come from monkeys, and they want to see if you’ve got a tail.”
Today, recounting this incredible story, the dark-skinned Heidelberg has to laugh. “This was real, man.”
He was one of a group of African-American teenagers known as the Norfolk 17, the first to attend formerly all-white high schools in Norfolk after a well-publicized standoff between the city and new federal desegregation laws in 1959. Attending Norview High as one of seven minority students, he endured threats, the not-so-subtle racism of teachers who wore gloves to avoid touching him and a host of other indignities.
But having a tail?
Weirdly, it now makes sense to Heidelberg, who turns 70 this year. “It’s what the kids were told so how can I be angry?”
“If you grow up with your parents telling you these stories, you want to see for yourself. If I had been told that white people had horns that come out when they get wet, I’d believe it too. Because my parents told me it’s true.”
The incident says a lot about how removed Norfolk’s white and black communities were from each other 50 years ago. Although he would eventually play football for Norview his senior year, and become something of a local sports hero (he later played briefly for the Pittsburgh Steelers), Heidelberg says today that his experience as one of the Norfolk 17 was “hell.”
“I’d never been around white people, any white people. When I walked up to Norview High School that first day, I had never seen that many white people in my life. It was frightening. And I’m looking at this flagpole in front and I’m thinking about Emmett Til, who had been lynched [in Mississippi] in 1955. He was fresh in my mind.”
Thirteen of the Norfolk 17 are still alive. There are plaques commemorating their courage throughout the city. In 2009, the 50th anniversary of Norfolk’s desegregation, the group was officially recognized with a series of celebratory events, including a parade. Dr. Vivian Turner, one of the Norfolk 17, remarked at the time that it was like finally feeling the rose after years of the thorn. “But all of us are damaged goods,” Heidelberg, who today lives in Hampton, admits. “We are functional, we are adjusted, but we are all damaged by the experience.”
Currently seeking his master’s degree at Old Dominion University, he’s working on a thesis that explores desegregation and high school sports. Heidelberg has also written a book that details his school days, The Norfolk 17: A Personal Narrative (RoseDog Books), using the experience as a form of therapy, he says. “But some of us still can’t sleep with the light out; some of can’t even talk about it.”