On September 29, 1958, Virginia Governor Lindsay Almond, faced with a court order to comply with a federal court order to admit 17 Black students in Norfolk to six all-White schools, closed them instead.
This was the climax of four years of legal and political resistance to the May 17, 1954 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that racial segregation of children in public schools was illegal.
The case driving the court’s edict was called Brown vs. The Topeka Board of Education.
Virginia joined 17 southern states to adopt the political and legal doctrine of “Massive Resistance” to circumvent and avoid the Supreme Court’s order. This included creating laws which called for closing any school targeted for desegregation.
“Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education” was composed of five cases from five states, including one from Virginia. It was the first legal nail in the coffin of Jim Crow segregation orchestrated by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense Fund.
The Brown case and a local suit filed by the NAACP on the part of Black parents demanded Norfolk to comply with Beckett vs. the Norfolk School Board, putting Norfolk at the forefront of the battle to convince Virginia to comply with the court’s order.
Along with siding with state political leaders, Norfolk city leaders, led by Mayor W. Fred Duckworth, worked to delay compliance. To avoid extensive “mixing” of Black and White students, Norfolk rigged a system to allow a limited number of Black students to attend six all-White schools.
Initially 151 students were selected. That number was eventually whittled down, based on stringent academic criteria and physical and psychological screening and selection, leaving 17 Black elementary, junior high and senior high students.
They were called the Norfolk 17.
Many of them were from the Norview and Oakwood sections of Norfolk. They lived so close to the all-White Norview Elementary, Junior and Senior Highs, they could walk to them.
But Massive Resistance forbade this logic, giving the NAACP, its lawyers and the Black community viable reasons to challenge it in court and the media.
All of the history and politics which still resonate with us today can be found in the pages of a book penned in 2012 by Drs. Jeffrey Littlejohn and Charles H. Ford, entitled “Elusive Equality.”
Littlejohn worked at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. Ford still works at the Department of History at Norfolk State.
Using oral histories, accounts from the Journal and Guide and White daily publications, such as the Virginian Pilot, legal and public documents, they amassed records of how the fight to overcome Massive Resistance was waged.
The book details the efforts by Blacks to secure educational equality in Norfolk from the 1930s and the fight over the Brown Decision in the 1950s which forced a token form of desegregation on February 2, 1959. That’s the date when Norfolk, under court order, reopened the all-White schools and became one of two school divisions in Virginia to comply with Brown.
Along with the court order, the White political and business elite who supported Jim Crow, nevertheless signed a petition calling for an end to the resistance.
Even after February 2, 1959, there were still efforts to avoid complying with Brown. Forced to use busing to desegregate effectively, Norfolk business leaders in orchestration with the White political elite, gradually dismantled the system of court-ordered desegregation. By the end of the 1980s, citing Jim Crow housing patterns, the city reversed itself and began re-segregating students into “neighborhood schools.”
Today, due to the effects of large scale White abandonment of the public schools, the district services a mostly Black clientele.
But one subplot which has not been looked at extensively even in “Elusive Equality” was the impact of the closing of the schools on the students who attended the all-Black schools which remained open in the fall of 1958.
Though the all-White schools targeted for desegregation were closed, Booker T. Washington High School (BTWHS) which served the Black community under Jim Crow rules remained open.
Not only was Booker T. not closed, the Black elementary and junior high were not closed either. No White student applied to enroll at any them.
Lula Sears Rogers and Lelia Hinton Crowders were seniors at BTWHS in the fall of 1958.
Rogers and Crowders’ families lived in Huntersville, the largest Black community in the city at the time.
Retired now, Rogers, after a long career as an Audiologist and Speech Pathologist, occasionally substitutes in the public schools.
Her family operated a confectionary. Today it would be called a convenience store where everything was sold from food to postal stamps. It was the only outlet bonded to sell U.S. Postal stamps and collect mail in the Black community.
Rogers said she also worked at her father’s dance hall checking coats and other duties when not at school or hanging out with the “in crowd.”
Rogers recalls she and senior classmates were too busy with normal teenage activities to even focus and understand the reason why the White schools were closed.
Rogers was a member of the band, the choir and various social and academic clubs on campus.
But there was one overwhelming fear which hung over the heads of Rogers and the other 300 members of the Class of 1959.
“Would they close Booker T. again and would we be able to get our diplomas to go to college,” she recalled, explaining that initially Booker T. had been closed for a very brief time when the six all-White schools were closed.
“We were scared to death because we had been preparing for college and that was our biggest focus at the time.”
“We were terrified that we would not be able to go to college” agreed Crowders. “The confederacy and hatred had raised its ugly head and threatened our future and closed our school. All of us were looking forward to going to college and prepare for the future. When they reopened Booker T., we all rejoiced.
Crowders was 8-years-old when her father, Journal and Guide War Correspondent Albert L. Hinton, died when a transport plane crashed in the Sea of Japan in 1950. He was en route to Korea to cover the conflict which had just broken out between the U.S. and North Korea.
She recalls being a finalist in the national Voice of Democracy Student essay contest. She was the only student from an all-Black school entered in the contest.
“I thought I did pretty well,” she recalled. “But I lost because the recording was a couple of seconds too long. But we all knew they could not allow a Black child to represent the state at that time of Jim Crow.”
Rogers recalls that students and faculty were afraid of Booker T. being attacked by irate and resentful White parents because the schools their children attended were closed.
“I recall that the White parents would congregate along the fence near the school facing Princess Anne Road and they were shouting and pointing at us in anger,” said Rogers. “That scared everyone to death.
“So Mr. (James A.) Clark, the band director, told us that we could not practice outside anymore. He nor the school officials did not know if the school was going to be attacked by Whites because we could attend school and they could not.”
There were 10,000 plus White students who were unable to attend school and many of the seniors at Granby, Maury, and Norview High Schools were forced to attend other school divisions which were not under threat of desegregation; attend study sessions at churches; enlist in the military; or even drop out of school all together.
In the “Elusive Equality,” these students were called the “Lost Class of 1959” who harbored resentment over being denied the prized rituals of their senior year of high school.
“We were limited, too … we had to do a lot on the down low,” said Rogers. “We did not know what would happen so we did not hang out like we had expected in public. We had a prom, but it was hush-hush about when and where it was going to held. A lot of fun of the senior spring was destroyed.”
Although there was not much celebration and “pomp and circumstance,” according to Rogers and Crowders, they did graduate despite fears the ceremony would be disrupted by violence or cancelled.
Rogers followed the footsteps of her oldest sister Evelyn and enrolled in Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), secured her degree, married had children, and worked as an educator.
Crowders first attended Norfolk State, and then transferred to Hampton Institute where she majored in English.
She married one of the first Black executives for AT&T and followed him around the country. Today the couple lives in Ashburn, Virginia and are retired.
“I don’t recall much about that time now,” said Crowders. “I do recall that it was a very dramatic time. All we wanted to do was graduate and that was almost taken away. A lot of people never asked us about our senior year. Despite all the tension, we managed to attend school and enjoy our senior year. I loved attending Booker T.
“No, it was not like the White schools materially, but the teachers were excellent and had better skills than the White ones.”
By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide