Andrew Heidelberg, 71, a member of the Norfolk 17, the pioneering Black students to desegregate the Norfolk Public Schools (NPS) in 1959, died July 6, according to his wife, Luressa.
Heidelberg, who lived in Hampton, was one of the most visible members of the Norfolk 17, and was the first African American to play football at Norfolk’s Norview High School.
Eight years ago, the city of Norfolk held a number of events to honor the Norfolk 17. On July 3, they were honored at an event at the Historic First Baptist Church, Bute Street.
Five years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared in the Brown V. Topeka Board of Education decision the system of racial segregation of the nation’s public school was illegal, Norfolk desegregated six of its all-white public schools in February 1959.
Until then Norfolk adhered to the doctrine of “Massive Resistance” which was designed to dismiss and not comply with the court’s Brown Decision. The city waged a legal and public relations war with the Black community and the state and local leaders of the NAACP over the issue.
During the fall of 1958 Norfolk closed the six all-white public schools targeted by a federal court order. When the federal court ordered the Norfolk School division to adhere to its ruling Heidelberg was one of the students enrolled at Norview.
Weeks before that historic moment, Heidelberg and other members of the Norfolk 17 attended classes at Norfolk’s First Baptist Bute Street to prepare them academically and emotionally for their role as pioneers.
“We were called every name in the book,” Heidelberg told the Guide in 2008, during an interview session and reception held for the Norfolk 17 in conjunction with WHRO-TV.
“I was chosen to do something special,” said Heidelberg, who committed to Judaism. “So I was not scared. We had been trained to not react to the hatred thrown at us. It was hard. But I eventually realized if I struck back, they would win. I was determined to win.
“If you were not there, you will never understand what we endured,” he said in 2008. “Now we are talking about it. I don’t think people, especially the young people, realize what we went through to give them the privileges they take for granted now. The freedom they enjoy today was not a reality for Norfolk and the Black community we represented. Each day we endured pure hell.”
Heidelberg was born on November 6, 1943 in Norfolk, Virginia to Lena and Colonal Heidelberg.
After desegregation rulings by federal judges in 1957 and 1959 against a fight led by Governor J. Lindsay Almond, Heidelberg began his education at Norview High School, five years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education. At the age of fourteen, Heidelberg joined sixteen other African Americans selected out of the 151 who had applied to attend all-white schools. Split between three junior high and three high schools, “The Norfolk 17” started Norfolk’s schools’ integration efforts in Virginia.
In 1961 during his senior year, Heidelberg made the school football team and was the first African American to play varsity football at an all-white public school in Virginia and in the South. That same year, his team won the Eastern District Championship for the State of Virginia and brought together Black and white families alike.
In 1967, Heidelberg entered the banking industry and worked at Industrial National Bank of Providence, Rhode Island. He became the bank’s first African American Branch Manager, Credit Officer, and Commercial Loan Officer before he left in 1976 to found Heidelberg, Clary & Associates, Inc.
After the firm closed, Heidelberg worked at Barclays Bank of New York and Banco de Ponce-New York as a Vice President and Corporate Manager.
In 2001, Heidelberg graduated from Norfolk State University with his B.S. degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. He went on to serve as Assistant Treasurer and Chief Deputy Treasurer for the City of Hampton in 2003.
He returned to Norview High School in 2009 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of “Massive Resistance” in Virginia.
Heidelberg was selected by Governor Mark Warner in 2005 to serve a two-year term as a member of the Brown v. Board of Education Scholarship Awards Committee.
He was appointed to serve two additional consecutive two-year terms (through 2011) by Governor Tim Kaine.
In 2006, he published his story in the book The Norfolk 17: A Personal Narrative on Desegregation in Norfolk, Virginia in 1958-1962. Heidelberg also finished writing a screenplay in 2009 based on the book The Colored Halfback.