A City Separated

A new book helps our understanding of Norfolk's harsh yet real story of desegregation

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The Norfolk 17 And Norview High School“Moderates and conservatives in Norfolk shared the same goal—to stop integration,” Charles Ford says. “The Byrd Machine was, of course, the driving thing, but they needed help on the ground in Norfolk. It went to the mayor, the moderates, even with the people in the Committee for Public Schools [a prominent citizen’s group].”

Also found in the school archive were chilling reminders of the treatment that early black students faced. Like a list of school board interview questions to determine if they were qualified to be in a white school, armed with loaded queries such as “What experience do you have with white kids?” and “Have you ever been in trouble?”

Heidelberg remembers his interview. The white school administrators got personal.

“The man said, ‘you like to be the leader.’ Miss Brown, your fifth grade teacher, said, ‘you like to win all the time.’ Well, if you go to Norview High School, you’re not going to be a leader. I think you should learn that to get along, you might let the white kids win sometime.”

“The schools did everything they could to avoid real integration,” Yaco says. “Whether it was special tests the black students had to take or intimidation or different standards or what have you.” Thankfully, she adds, the kids had passionate, quick-thinking advocates like Vivian Carter Mason, a well-known Civil Rights activist.

The principal of the school at First Baptist Church, Mason helped prepare the black students. “Once she heard that lawsuit was coming down and it was decided it was going to be 17 students, she trained those 17 students,” Yaco says. “She worked them, she worked them to death [on] making sure scholastically that they were up to par, up to the same level as the white students, but also on how they would deal with what they were going to face.”The Norfolk 17 faced discriminiation in Norfolk schools

“We’re forever bonded together because of that experience,” Heidelberg says of the Norfolk 17’s lessons in the hot church basement. “We all grew up there, 17 of us. Youngest one was 12, and the oldest was 16; we were like young kids. And they drilled us every day on how to act in front of the white kids—if they call you a nigger, what do you do? If they spit on you, what do you do? And they constantly told us that we can’t fight back ... fight back and they’ll throw you out of the school and we’re defeated. Don’t fight, don’t argue—it was rough, man. It was like going to camp.”

Originally, there were to be 151 black students to enter the system, but the school board flunked them all. Judge Hoffman didn’t buy that there were no qualified applicants and insisted that some be admitted. Andrew Heidelberg has always wondered why he was one of the eventual 17 chosen—“when there were smarter people than me.” He’s formulated an interesting theory. “I think that they took all of the black people with the funny names. Like Heidelberg. How many black people do you know named Heidelberg? Alveraze Frederick Gonsouland ... Carol and Claudia Wellington, Lolita Portis, Louis Cousins ... Betty Jean Reed—Betty Jean is a white girl’s name. There were 17 of us but only four or five were dark complexioned like me; the others were real light, almost white.”