By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
On February 2, 1959, when Andrew Heidelberg walked into Norview High School, his life dramatically changed.
Along with 16 other Black teens desegregating six all-white schools, they were met with non-stop angry slurs and threats from white students.
This slice of history took place nearly five years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled racially separate public schools were illegal in Brown vs. The Board of Education. But Virginia was one of several southern states which imposed legal “Massive Resistance” policies and practices to avoid complying with it. In fact, the six all-white Norfolk schools targeted for desegregation by the federal court had been closed rather than to comply with the law.
On February 2, 2023, the 64th anniversary of The Norfolk 17’s daring to enter the all-white schools, a new book is being released about Heidelberg’s life before and during those traumatic years. “Heidelberg of the Norfolk 17” was written by Robert D. Gaines and Andrew Heidelberg before Andrew’s death seven years ago. The 230-page book is being published by Hidden Shelf Publishing House.
Gaines, whose father was in the Navy, arrived at Norview in November of 1959. Ironically, the year before he had been a white student at a junior high school in California with a student body that was 95 percent Black.
“I had great friends and never encountered any racial problems,” Gaines said. “Coming to Norfolk was a cultural shock.”
Gaines said he never participated in the harassment of his Black classmates at Norview, but what he witnessed was etched in his memory. In 2008, after retiring from Bucknell University and having written several novels, Gaines found Heidelberg, who after a career in banking, was a social activist living in Hampton.
“I was a bit nervous when I knocked on his door,” said Gaines. “He answered and sort of gave me a scowl. ‘I don’t remember you in high school,’ he grumbled, followed by a grin.
“‘That’s probably a good thing,’ he continued as he slapped my shoulder and warmly welcomed me into his home.”
“I was there to write a book … he wanted a movie,” said Gaines, who now lives in Idaho. “We would spend three years talking, writing, editing. Working with Andrew was always riveting, never easy … he carried deep scars from what he had endured.”
Heidelberg’s family were natives of Norfolk, and he spent his early life in a home with no indoor plumbing in the heart of the Black slums. Racial housing segregation was the norm at the time. But there were some well-known paradoxes to that reality. The family moved to a modest new rental housing developed for Blacks near Sewell Points Road, just blocks from the all-white Norview schools.
This was the crux of the NAACP and Black communities to push Norfolk to comply with the Brown Decision. Heidelberg and the other students who desegregated the all-white schools lived within walking distance. They had to catch two buses to the all-Black elementary, junior, and senior high schools downtown.
One evening in 1957, young Andrew ran home from playing football with his friends, certain he would be in trouble for being late. Instead, several strangers were sitting in the living room with his parents.
“One of the ladies asked Andrew if he would like to attend a white school,” said Gaines. “He didn’t even hesitate. ‘Sure,’ he said, happy he was not in trouble. Of course, in his mind, the thought of Black kids going to white schools was impossible. It would never happen.”
During the initial phase of its efforts to recruit Black students and their parents to participate in the plan, over 150 youths were identified by the community and the NAACP. They were all academically strong. But the Norfolk school board devised a devious and abusive screening of the students. It considered their emotional, physical and social backgrounds.
The book describes how Andrew and his mother attended an interview session with school officials. The Vice Chair of the Board, E. L. Lambert, led the group of white officials who pelted Andrew and his mother with questions.
“Andrew said it was cold and humiliating,” Gaines said in a recent interview with the GUIDE. “They had researched his background and noted that he had a ‘smart mouth’ and always wanted to win. He was told that he was not to retaliate if attacked by any whites. He was not going to play sports or participate in any after-school activities. He would keep his mouth shut and not win at anything.”
“Not being able to play sports or retaliate if he was attacked was not Andrew’s nature,” Gaines said. “His mother did a good job of suppressing her fury with Lambert. As they left the building, she told her son he was not to let any of those white students outdo him in anything … or he’d answer to her. She always knew when he needed love and comfort.”
Gaines said the night before Heidelberg entered Norview, he could not sleep. “When he finally did, he had a terrible nightmare where he and Emmitt Till were surrounded by a white mob.”
The book reveals Andrew’s obsession with Emmitt Till, the Chicago youth who had been brutally murdered in Mississippi several years before. Under his bed, he hid the copy of Ebony Magazine that included the photograph of Emmitt Till’s bloated and battered body.
“Andrew feared the same thing would happen to him,” said Gaines.
Andrew walked to school the morning of February 2nd with Freddie Gonsouland, also of The Norfolk 17. They both described it as walking into the middle of a war, surrounded by the enemy.
“When Andrew finally made it to the auditorium to get his classes, all the white students got up and moved away from him. All the while, they were singing a disgustingly altered version of the Coasters hit, ‘Charlie Brown.’
For two years, Andrew said he was called ‘nigger’ a thousand times a day … and worse.”
In the summer of 1960, Andrew tried out for Norview’s football team. He was cut, devastated.
“They said I was too light,” Andrew would later tell sports reporters. “Actually, I was too dark.”
Heidelberg would not be thwarted. In 1961, after a decision by Coach Charles McClurg that would rock the Old South, Andrew made the team. He would be the first African American varsity player to desegregate a Virginia high school football team.
A football powerhouse and two-time state champion, Norview entered the season with a long winning streak. In the opening game, against Princess Anne at Norview’s Chittum Field, it seemed as if 11,000 “white stares” were all directed toward number 33, Heidelberg. People were openly yelling “kill the nigger” from the visitors side of the stadium … and on the field as well.
“There was this big question floating around,” said Gaines, “Would the Norview players even bother to block for Andrew?”
That would soon be answered. Andrew Heidelberg ran the opening kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown. He would score another touchdown just before the half, running straight into the cheering Norview band lined up outside the end zone.
“Since that first day in school, all Andrew wanted was to be a normal high school kid,” Gaines said. “As soon as he made the football team, he was suddenly treated like royalty. The slurs completely stopped. He felt guilty because the same kindness was still not being afforded to the other members of the Norfolk 17. But he loved his senior year … even though he was constantly harassed and kicked by opposing players.”
It was always dangerous. The following week, at E.C. Glass High in Lynchburg, the sold-out stadium was surrounded by the National Guard. Inside the stadium was bedlam.
Gaines said that royalties from the book will be directed to Heidelberg’s widow.
“This is Andrew’s story, ” he said. “And he made sure it was totally accurate … the way it really happened. He was an amazing person caught in a surreal world … and, by the way, he won!”
Gaines will be at the Slover Library in Norfolk on February 2 to release his new book on Heidelberg.
Andrew Heidelberg (third from left) and members of the Norfolk 17 in 2008. NJG File Photo