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 opened the door for future studentsNorfolk’s tense desegregation battle didn’t just affect the black community. It also saw thousands of white children displaced from their classes. They were sent scrambling to private tutors; many never completed their educations. They became known as “the lost class.”

“At the time, we were 17 years old, and I don’t think we comprehended it completely,” Suzanne Ship-Owens told WHRO-TV years later. She was in her senior year at all-white Granby High School when the standoff occurred. “It took awhile to set in. We were overwhelmed to think that the politicians could rule our lives that way.”

Mary Jane Birdsong, who was the president of Maury High’s student council in 1959, described the scene around Norfolk as “pandemonium.”

“It was emotionally charged because people began to divide up ... I’m talking about families split right down the middle. The father felt this way, the mother felt that way. And, of course, we [the students] would hear this, and we just wanted to go to school.”

Yaco says that, while Norfolk’s white students did endure some hardships, “they were not beat up, or ostracized, they did not feel the shame, no one spit at them. There’s no way that it was anywhere near as bad for them. Their school was closed [for eight months] and some of them did not get to go to prom—that is not the end of the world. There were many, many opportunities for them to go elsewhere. They could go to private school and have the state pay for it, they could go to South Norfolk schools or to other school Norfolk schools closed for a year instead of desegregatingdistricts.”

At the standoff’s most heated point, before the Norfolk 17 were allowed in, Norfolk city council, along with Mayor Duckworth, considered closing down African-American schools in retaliation. “Duckworth was certainly a catalyst; he provided the stylistic leadership,” Ford says of Norfolk’s racist mayor, who had run for office as part of something called “The Harmony Ticket.” “He was very blunt and certainly provided the red meat for the most vociferous critics of desegregation.”

At the center of the divisiveness, Ford and Littlejohn’s book recounts, was Norfolk’s more subtle white leadership and business community. “Even after the schools were reopened, [they] didn’t really support integration and desegregation. I mean they wanted to open public schools, but they also wanted to drag their feet on real school integration as much as possible. Maybe not as dramatically as the Byrd Machine, but they shared the same goal. They just had different methods.”

One thing that Elusive Equality makes clear: resistance to integrated schools continued for decades. “What surprised me in doing the research,” Ford says, “was the persistence of Norfolk’s civic oligarchy, the power elites there, and how adaptable they have been to challenges to authority or perceived problems such as desegregation or white flight or busing. They were very successful in keeping their power, even into the 21st century.”