A City Separated
A new book helps our understanding of Norfolk's harsh yet real story of desegregation
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It was one of Virginia’s darkest hours. When U.S. District Court judge Walter E. Hoffman ruled in June 1958 that black students had to attend the city’s all-white schools—in order to comply with the 1954 Brown v. Education ruling that overturned “separate but equal” education— he initiated what would turn into a tragic game of chicken.
The standoff was between the federal government and the “massive resistance” triad of Norfolk Mayor Kevin Duckworth, Virginia Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. and Sen. Harry F. Byrd. The latter, at that time, controlled state politics.
The “Byrd Machine” had anticipated federal integration of schools by promoting a state law mandating that any school in Virginia would automatically close if forced to integrate by the federal government. And so Norfolk became one of a half dozen Virginia communities affected, traumatized, by a protracted school closing— Charlottesville and Warren County schools were also shut down.
Eventually, thanks to pressure from the Navy and a reluctant business community, Norfolk’s segregationist school board relented, finally admitting 17 African American kids into six high schools and middle schools on Feb. 2, 1959. The tumultuous and drawn out fight became a national story, and for good reason. “Norfolk’s school closing was the largest in Virginia, maybe even the United States,” says Dr. Charles Ford of Norfolk State University. “And it displaced 10,000 students.”
Ford is the co-author (with Dr. Jeffery Littlejohn) of a new book, Elusive Equality: Desegregation and Resegregation in Norfolk’s Public Schools (University Press of Virginia), that may be the most definitive work to date on what happened. Seven years in the making, the work benefited from a sudden, and inexplicable, release of papers from the Norfolk school administration’s own archives.
“ODU received all of these school board records from the 1960s,” Ford says. “Norfolk State had been asking for the papers for years and were told that they just didn’t exist or they’d been thrown out or they couldn’t find them. There were videotapes from 1969 to 1983, and they were missing. All of a sudden, all of that stuff appeared.”
“It’s not uncommon,” Sonia Yaco, special collections librarian at ODU, says. “With many school districts and counties, the history that is uncomfortable they lose temporarily or even permanently.” Among many other things, the huge trove of papers that ODU received included the forms for private tuition grants so that white kids could avoid attending desegregated schools, and proof that separate PTAs for whites and blacks existed well into the 1960s. “What made my spine tingle the most,” Yaco says, “was when I picked up a letter that the governor had sent to the superintendent of public schools saying, ‘We understand that the courts have ruled that you must admit 17 African-Americans, and now I have the power to close those schools. I do that now ... ’”