The members of the Norfolk 17 were the true heroes of the school integration struggle in Norfolk, Virginia. As young men and women, they entered six of the previously all-white public schools in the city, persevering in the face of intense racial animosity. In doing so, they secured for themselves, their friends and family, and indeed their entire people, a new place in American society.
Many members of the Norfolk 17 were too young to take notice of Brown v. Board of Education, when the case was decided in May 1954. Little did they know that the Supreme Court's historic decision would re-write the story of their lives. At the time, they all attended segregated black schools in Norfolk (or went to school in other locations). Although most of the students have fond memories of their all-black schools, they were well aware of the inequalities within Norfolk's public school system. They knew, for instance, that their textbooks always had the stamp of a nearby white school that had recently received up-dated books. They knew, too, that at white schools students didn't have to wear their coats inside during the winter or move buckets to collect rain water that fell from the ceiling. And, finally, they knew that it was the white community that dominated the city and state government, which was undertaking a strategy of Massive Resistance to the Brown decision to keep them out of white schools, businesses, and other public establishments.
During the spring and summer of 1958, the members of the Norfolk 17 were encouraged by their parents, church members, and local civil rights leaders to join with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in its attempt to enforce the Brown decision in Norfolk. At the time, not one public school in the city or state had been integrated, and the members of the Norfolk 17 took a great risk when they agreed to participate. By July 25, they had joined with 134 other students in an attempt to transfer from their black schools into the white schools of the city. This meant that the Norfolk 17 had to take a battery of academic and psychological tests overseen by the members of the school board. On August 18, the school board announced that all 151 transfer requests were denied. Yet, after meeting with District Court Judge Walter E. Hoffman, the board decided that it would grudgingly admit 17 of the 151 applicants to six of the city's all-white secondary schools.
This was not the end of the story, however. For, months earlier, the state legislature had passed legislation that empowered the governor to close any Virginia public school, which was “threatened” by integration. On September 29, 1958 six of Norfolk's formerly all-white schools were closed to avoid integration. More than 9,000 white students were kept from school, and the members of the Norfolk 17 were the targets of intense criticism and public scrutiny. They shared the white students' locked-out status, and they attended school at Bute Street Baptist Church during the winter of 1958.
Fittingly, on the anniversary of Robert E. Lee's birth, January 19, 1959, the Virginia State Supreme Court and the Federal District Court declared that the school closings in Norfolk were unconstitutional. Two weeks later, on February 2, 1959, the Norfolk 17 became the first African American students to attend the previously all-white schools in the largest school district in the state of Virginia.
The members of the Norfolk 17 faced many difficulties as they entered their new schools. They were spit at, cursed at, belittled, and ostracized. And yet, they met the challenge. Most took solace in their faith in God and his plan for them. They persevered through the hardships, graduated, and went on to achieve great things as members of the larger American community.
Members of the Norfolk 17
and the schools they attended
Northside Jr. High School (enrollment ca. 1400)
Geraldine Talley Hobby
Maury High School (enrollment ca. 2075)
Granby High School (enrollment ca. 2100)
Betty Jean Reed
Blair Jr. High School (enrollment ca. 1100)
Lolita Portis Reginald Young
Norview Jr. High School (enrollment ca. 2175)
James Turner Jr.
Norview High School (enrollment ca. 1100)
Alvarez Frederick Gonsouland
Delores Johnson Brown
Olivia Driver Lindsay