By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
Six decades ago, the Norfolk 17 made their mark in Virginia and national history books when they desegregated six all-white public schools.
This ended Virginia’s role among the six other southern states’ Massive Resistance to complying with the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Decision declaring racially segregated public schools illegal.
Virginia state lawmakers-imposed laws and used the courts, the clout of local all-white city councils, school boards, and business leaders to impose evasive tactics to not to comply with Brown.
One of the most devious was a law calling for closing any public school the courts targeted for desegregation.
Six of them were closed in Norfolk.
Another was a strategy of foot-dragging toward compliance. Initially, there were over 100 Black students who applied to desegregate Norfolk’s all-white public schools.
The city then sought to use a series of filters to select the students “they thought qualified” based on academic, psychological, and emotional criteria.
The process involved a series of one-on-one interviews with the students and their parents with school officials. The number of “qualified” students was whittled down to 17 and the court agreed.
That is when the state closed the six schools in the fall of 1958 to avoid compliance.
They kept open the all-Black schools such as Booker T. Washington High School. No white parents had planned to enroll their child in any of them.
Finally, the federal courts ordered the city to re-open the schools, which occurred on February 3, 1959.
Fourteen years ago, the city of Norfolk held a series of events to honor the Norfolk 17’s contributions to that passage of Norfolk’s history.
At the same time, the idea of a marker or monument to highlight their deeds were also was put in motion.
Norfolk Public Arts Manager Karen Rudd has been tasked with organizing the journey to plan, construct and then present some form of public art honoring the end of Massive Resistance to honor the N-17.
The path toward achieving the goal of building the monument was akin to the barrier-filled pathway the Black community had to traverse to achieve the goals realized on February 3, 1959.
She and her colleagues have been frustrated along the way she admits.
Rejection of the proposals by a committee selected to guide the process, and city council and other issues are on the list.
Recently while a GUIDE reporter was strolling through downtown, he eyed earth-moving and construction equipment, sitting silent after a period of operation along the 500 block of Granby Street.
The site was the Flat Iron Park, built after the triangular-shaped Flat Iron Building was razed some years ago.
It once housed a bank. The vault still exists beneath the surface venue.
So does, Rudd said, a live electric wire which must be removed before construction can proceed.
She said the city is waiting for Dominion Energy to remove it. But once that is complete, the public artwork named “The End of Massive Resistance Commemoration” will be built – finally.
It will be a 55 feet long by 8 feet tall paneled wall, according to Rudd.
The spot was selected based on the proximity to the U.S. Federal District Courthouse which still sits a block away from the site.
In that courthouse, the bulk of the legal battles between the NAACP lawyers and representatives of the state and city of Norfolk were waged for weeks.
It culminated with Federal Judge Walter Hoffmann ordering the city of Norfolk to comply with Brown and open the six schools, and admit the 17 Black children.
An image on the structure represents the exterior of a 50s-era school building which fragments, eventually showing full images of the Norfolk 17. They are standing on the front steps of the Historic First Baptist Church Bute Street in a series of linked panels
In one panel next to the one showing the N-17, there is an image of a group of white students. It represents the “Lost Class of 1959.” These were the students who could
not attend their senior year and could prepare to graduate in the Spring of 1959 since the city’s all-white high schools were closed.
According to the archives of the Journal and Guide, white parents played an ironic role in ending Massive Resistance by filing a suit against the Governor and other
state officials, seeking to reopen the schools.
The white parents complained that closing the six all- white schools denied their children the right to a quality and viable public education. This was similar to the parents of the Black parents in Norfolk and other cities where resistance to desegregation was taking place.
When the six schools were closed, church leaders, the NAACP, Black educators and civic leaders created a makeshift school at the Historic First Baptist Church Bute Street where classes were taught daily to enable the N-17 to maintain their academic standing.
The city’s commemorative project was devised with the help of a seven-member “Art Planning Committee” composed of city officials, artists, and other private citizens. The artwork was constructed by RE:site, a Texas company that has created a variety of public art
commemorations. They were finalists on the NY 9/11 memorial selected out of 5,201 submissions.
Rudd said the unveiling of the artwork is scheduled for February 2, 2023, the first day 64 years ago the Norfolk 17 entered the six all-white schools which were closed in the fall of 1958.
“This has been a long journey and what could go wrong did,” said Rudd. “But I think the history and the legacy of the Norfolk17 will be well represented. It’s a tribute to the city’s past and its respect for telling the truth about history.”
Reverend (Dr.) Pat Turner, 78, is one of the nine Norfolk 17 still living, four of whom live in the Hampton Roads area.
On February 3, 1959, she was the lone Black 8th grader to enter Norview Junior High School. There were four other Black 7th graders, including her brother, James.
The children lived within blocks of the school. But could not step foot into it until that day.
All of us she said “were alone as we walked to that school. We were not escorted to the school by the NAACP like the high school students. It was frightening.”
Turner said the idea of a monument to honor the Norfolk 17 picked up steam after Andrew Heidelberg, who enrolled in Norview High School, died.
Dr. Turner said she “knew something was being planned but we (the Norfolk 17) did not know what”.
“Over time I had heard of some ideas,” she said. “But I knew something had to be done.”
Recently a reporter for the GUIDE shared the final concept of the “End of Massive Resistance” artwork with her.
“I am Impressed. I love it,” she said. “I think it represents us as a group very well. I am proud of what my city finally did.
“I am glad that I am not some chair or some cold statue,” she said with a laugh. I look forward to sharing the moment it is unveiled with a new generation of people.”
Part II: Meet the author of a new book to be released during February 2023 on Norfolk 17 student Andrew Heidelberg.
Iconic historic photo of the Norfolk 17 outside of First Baptist Church Bute Street. Photo: Courtesy