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Introduction - School Desegregation in Norfolk, Virginia -- Digital Collection of the Old Dominion University Libraries

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November 1953

Blessed Sacrament School (a Norfolk parochial school) is the first all-white school in the region to enroll a black student.

March 1954

Rear Adm. T.B. Brittain, commanding officer of Norfolk Naval Base, requests that the Norfolk School Board integrate an elementary school on federal property. Other Navy facilities were already integrated.

May 17, 1954

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas -- overturns Plessy v. Ferguson ("separate but equal") ruling of 1896.

  • Virginia Governor Thomas B. Stanley called for ''cool heads, calm, steady and sound judgment.'' (Listen to audio from Library of Virginia WRVA Radio Collection.)

  • Norfolk School Superintendent J.J. Brewbaker proposed ''an intellectual rather than an emotional'' response.

June 26, 1954

U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr., who essentially controlled Virginia politics, vows to stop integration plans in Virginia schools.

August 30, 1954

Governor Stanley appoints a 32-member, all-white Commission on Public Education to examine the effects of Brown v. Board on Virginia and plan a course of action. It is chaired by Senator Garland Gray of Sussex County.

October 26, 1954

The State Corporation Commission certifies the "Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties," an organization of segregationists and white supremacists formed primarily to preserve segregation in Virginia.


February, 1955

The Women's Council for Interracial Cooperation, formed in 1945, held a meeting to educate Norfolk about desegregation. 400-500 people attended the meeting.

April 16, 1955

Lieutenant Governor A.E.S. Stephens advocates a rational approach to integration. See speech.

May 31, 1955

The United States Supreme Court, in Brown II, places responsibility for implementation of Brown v. Board with district courts; calls for public school desegregation "with all deliberate speed."

In Norfolk, the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority (NRHA) under the direction of Mayor Duckworth works to rezone neighborhoods and keep black and white citizens separate. [Examples are Norfolk General Hospital which separated Ghent from black neighborhoods; Old Dominion University separated Lambert's Point from Larchmont and Edgewater.] Schools are torn down and reconstructed in the segregated neighborhoods.

July 1, 1955

Norfolk School Board issues a resolution to "uphold and abide by the laws of the land" and to "pledge our efforts" to continue the Public School System.

July 14, 1955

233 Negro citizens sign petition to Norfolk School Board asking for "good faith compliance" with the Supreme Court decision "at the earliest practicable date" to reorganize schools along non-racial lines.

November 11, 1955

Report submitted to Governor Stanley from the Commission on Public Education: "The Commission believes that separate facilities in our public schools are in the best interest of both races, educationally and otherwise, and that compulsory integration should be resisted by all proper means in our power." The "Gray Plan" is introduced, recommending a pupil assignment plan, tuition grants, and a suspension of compulsory attendance laws.


January 9, 1956

Virginians vote in Referendum to adopt the Gray Plan Amendment which would permit grants to pupils for private schooling to avoid desegregation. On January 4, the Norfolk Ministers Association urged voters to vote against the referendum.

February 24, 1956

Senator Byrd coins the term "Massive Resistance," a campaign of new state laws and policies to prevent public school desegregation.

March 12, 1956

The "Southern Manifesto," signed by 101 southern politicians, is introduced to condemn the Supreme Court encroaching on states' rights.

May 10, 1956

NAACP files a lawsuit to end segregation in Norfolk, the first such suit in South Hampton Roads: Leola Pearl Beckett et al. v. the School Board of the City of Norfolk. This case was continued and appealed over several years during the struggle for desegregation. Lawyers for Beckett included Victor J. Ashe, J. Hugo Madison, Joseph A. Jordan, Jr.

Other lawsuits were filed in Arlington, Newport News, and Charlottesville.

May 11, 1956

Montgomery, Alabama court hears bus segregation case resulting from action of Rosa Parks.

May 12, 1956

Norfolk School Board asks the Governor to convene the General Assembly to consider problems arising out of the Brown v. Board decision.

August 27, 1956

Governor Stanley introduces the "Stanley Plan" to appease "massive resisters" whose goal was to "prevent a single Negro child from entering any white school."

September 5, 1956

In a special session, the Virginia General Assembly holds a hearing on public school integration. Lester Banks, executive secretary of the Virginia NAACP, testifies. (Listen to audio from Library of Virginia WRVA Radio Collection.)

September 21, 1956

The General Assembly requires that any public school with both black and white students be closed.

December 29, 1956

Governor Stanley establishes the Pupil Placement Board.


January 11, 1957

Federal District Court Judge Walter E. Hoffman files his opinion on the identical class action lawsuits: Beckett v. School Board of the City of Norfolk and Atkins v. School Board of the City of Newport News, both seeking the desegregation of schools in those cities. He declares the Pupil Placement Act unconstitutional and orders the school boards to integrate by September 1957.

February 26, 1957

District Court Order enjoins "the school authorities of Norfolk, Virginia, from refusing solely on account of race or color, to admit, enroll or educate in any school operated by them, any child otherwise qualified."

September, 1957

No action is taken to admit black students into all-white schools, primarily because of pending lawsuits.

September 25, 1957

Federal troops are sent to Little Rock, Arkansas to admit nine black students ("Little Rock 9") to an all-white high school.


January 11, 1958

J. Lindsay Almond Jr. inaugurated as Governor of Virginia. He was elected in November 1957 on a massive resistance platform.

June 7, 1958

Judge Hoffman announces that all applications from Negro children for transfer must be acted upon with reasonable promptness, and without regard to race or color.

July 17, 1958

Norfolk School Board adopts a resolution that sets forth the criteria to be used in placing students in schools. Criteria included distance from the applicant's home to the schools, the scholastic aptitude of the student, the availability of seats and room in the schools, and the character of the student as determined in an interview.

August 18, 1958

The School Board rejects 151 applications from black students, citing the health and safety of the students, their inability to adapt, or their place of residence.

August 25, 1958

Judge Hoffman refers all 151 applications back to the School Board for further consideration, reminding them of their oath to carry out the law and the other responsibilities of their positions.

Applicants undergo a week of intensive testing.

August 29, 1958

After the School Board reviews its options, it agrees to admit 17 ("Norfolk 17") of the 151 black applicants to white schools. The Board asks to defer admissions until September 1959; Judge Hoffman refuses.

September 3, 1958

The Norfolk School Board delays opening of school from September 8 to September 22. Other localities also postpone school openings, presumably awaiting a Supreme Court decision regarding the Little Rock 9 case.

September 22, 1958

Norfolk elementary schools open.

September 27, 1958

The School Board orders the schools to be opened, with the 17 Negroes admitted. Governor Almond seizes Norfolk's schools, as he had done in Warren County and Charlottesville, and orders them closed, leaving 10,000 children out of school (largest number of any VA school system). Closed schools were Granby, Maury, and Norview high schools, and Blair, Northside, and Norview junior high schools.


  • Many parents seek alternate venues for their children. Churches and other organizations offer classes. Teachers form tutorial groups. "Parlor schools" open in private homes. Norfolk Division of the College of William & Mary (now ODU) provides classes for some children.

  • Some students attend neighboring schools in South Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Portsmouth.

  • Some students move out of state to live with relatives.

  • The Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties sets up Tidewater Educational Foundation to create private classes for white students. The Tidewater Academy opened October 22, 1958, with 250 students taught by mostly retired teachers.

  • Black schools remain open. Rather than sending the "Norfolk 17" to a segregated school and weakening their case, Hugo Madison, an NAACP lawyer, sets up a makeshift school for them in First Baptist Church on Bute Street.

September, 1958

The Committee for Public Schools is formed by Norfolk citizens and business people to re-open the schools. In letters and petitions, they file a lawsuit against Governor Almond and call for the schools to reopen. Ruth Pendleton James, a minor, etc., et al. v. J. Lindsay Almond, Jr., Governor of Virginia, et al.The Norfolk Education Association, the Women's Council for Interracial Cooperation, numerous ministers and others voice their support for reopening the schools.

October 21, 1958

Governor Almond declares "the present Governor of Virginia will not assign white and colored pupils to be together in the same school."

November 18, 1958

Special Informational Election is held in Norfolk to petition the governor to open the public schools. Flier

  • Less than one-half of all eligible voters vote -- poll tax keeps many black voters from the polls; Mayor Duckworth deters many blacks from voting.

  • 12,340 votes against; 8,712 votes for. Petition is not filed.


January 13, 1959

Mayor Duckworth and the City Council move to eliminate funding for all secondary schools, including all black secondary schools. Roy Martin casts the only dissenting vote. The plan is to cease all funding after February 1.

January 19, 1959

A three-judge federal court rules in James v. Almond that the Virginia school-closing statute is unconstitutional and illegal.

Also on this day, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals made the same ruling in Harrison v. Day. The state's constitution requires maintenance of an "efficient" school system.

A second case is filed in state court: Ruth Pendleton James, a minor, etc., et al. v. W. Fred Duckworth, et al. to prevent closing all schools above the 6th grade. The daughter of Ellis and Ruth James is the litigant in both James cases. Archie L. Boswell and Edmund D. Campbell are the attorneys for the plaintiffs.

January 20, 1959

Governor Almond denounces federal court rulings in a fiery speech. (Listen to audio from Library of Virginia WRVA Radio Collection.)

January 21, 1959

CBS broadcasts ''The Lost Class of '59" with Edward R. Murrow, one of the nation's most respected journalists. Unwanted national attention is brought to the Norfolk school desegregation crisis. Margaret White, a teacher at Granby High School, is among those interviewed for the program.

January 26, 1959

100 prominent business leaders take out a full-page advertisement in The Virginian-Pilot urging the reopening of the schools. While it professed preference for segregation, it urged acceptance of the new reality.

January 29, 1959

A cross is burned in front of Norview High School.

February 2, 1959

The six schools reopen, and the 17 black students walk in. There are no federal troops, as in Arkansas. Reporters outnumber police. "Racial slurs are thrown, but not bricks." Massive resistance ends. The 17 students endure unspeakable discrimination and abuse. Yet, their determination and courage pave the way for educational opportunities for other African-American students. See Feature on The Norfolk 17.

After the schools reopened

February 5, 1959

Governor Almond appoints the Perrow Commission to make recommendations to safeguard segregated schools in Virginia. Their report was submitted March 31, 1959.

1960 Governor Almond orders all schools to integrate.
1960 Norfolk receives "All American City" award, granted by LOOK Magazine and the National Municipal League.
1960s Desegregation stalls. By the end of the 60s, the vast majority of Norfolk schools remained either 90 percent white or 90 percent black, with 10 schools all white, and 19 all black.
1970s Mandatory busing is a new approach to desegregation; one result is "white flight" from Norfolk's public schools. In 1975, Judge McKenzie declared Norfolk schools "unitary."
1980s Elementary school busing ends in 1986, causing a return to neighborhood schools and resegregation. Norfolk was the first city in the country to end busing in grades K-5.
2001 Middle school busing ends; segregation continues.
2002 City of Norfolk honors the Norfolk 17 for their courage and determination.
2003 Norfolk School Board considers proposal to end high school busing.
2008 Celebrations for the 50th anniversary of Norfolk's school desegregation occur, including a "Freedom Sunday" celebrated at First Baptist Church, Bute Street on July 6 to honor the Norfolk 17.

Among the sources used in the this timeline are:

  • Brewbaker, John Joseph. Desegregation in the Norfolk Public Schools. Norfolk, VA: Southern Regional Council, 1960.

  • Gruss, Mike and Philip Walzer. "Pioneers of Progress." (Series: Brown v. Board of Education: 1954-2004). The Virginian-Pilot, February 1, 2004. (Factiva)

  • Nichols, James Andrew. The Turning of a City's Soul: Norfolk's Public School Integration Crisis, 1954-1959. M.A., History, VPI, 2003. (

  • Parramore, Thomas C. Norfolk: The First Four Centuries. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1994. (Chapter 25: A sojourn in the Byrd-cage, pp. 362-376) F234.N8P375 1994

  • White, Forrest R. Pride and Prejudice: School Desegregation and Urban Renewal in Norfolk, 1950-1959. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992. HT177.N66W45 1992

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