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 trained to endure hardships in schoolAnd some of the so-called heroes of the desegregation story should be viewed more realistically, the professor says— like Judge Walter Hoffman, whose courageous ruling set the drama into motion. “Hoffman also helped the school board drag its feet on real integration of the schools and became a vociferous opponent of busing. His wife actually worked in the school district, a librarian, and he never recused himself.”

Thanks to Elusive Equality, Andrew Heidelberg’s memoir and the school board papers that are now at ODU, our understanding of Norfolk’s desegregationist past is coming more and more into focus. But it’s just the start of a larger dialogue, according to Sonia Yaco. “Whether you were for integration or against it, we want to hear your story,” she says.

With Dr. Ford and a host of community groups, she is helping to spearhead the DOVE Project, which kicked off a statewide traveling exhibit last year. “School Desegregation: Learn, Preserve and Empower” was designed to encourage firsthand accounts of people who attended Norfolk schools during that heady period. The exhibit is currently on display at ODU’s Perry Library.

Thanks to the DOVE Project, more than 80 new oral histories about the days of desegregation have already been collected. “It’s been long enough that people are starting to feel somewhat safe in talking about it,” Yaco maintains. “I don’t mean to say that the wounds have healed. In the oral histories that we’ve collected from people, many of them said that this was the first time they’ve ever discussed it with anyone. They’ve never talked to their family about it, or their friends ... people can begin to move forward because of the DOVE project.”Even today there is emotional trauma for the Norfolk 17

“Black kids, white kids, they should know what it was like 50 years ago,” says Heidelberg, who is assisting in promoting the oral history. “Everybody who fought this battle wasn’t a Martin Luther King. There’s a lot of small people like us that had an impact on what’s going on. And the DOVE project shows people that their story is needed and that everyone’s experience is important.”

For more on the Norfolk 17 and school desegregation in Norfolk, go to lib.odu.edu/specialcollections/schooldesegregation. To participate in the DOVE Project oral history, contact Sonia Yaco at syaco@odu.edu or Charles Ford at cford@nsu.edu.