The Brown decision and
Massive Resistance in Norfolk
In 1954, when the Supreme Court issued the Brown decision, Norfolk was an urban oddity in an otherwise rural and agricultural state. The port city had a burgeoning population of 250,000, and it was home to the U.S. Atlantic Fleet and NATO's Supreme Allied Command. Norfolk was so promising, in fact, that by 1955 it had surpassed Richmond as the largest metropolitan area in Virginia.
The new mayor of Norfolk , W. F. Duckworth, took great pride in the city and was actively involved in planning a re-development campaign for the downtown area. The “improvement” -- and continued segregation -- of Norfolk 's school system was also a part of Mayor Duckworth's urban renewal strategy.1 He and John J. Brewbaker, the superintendent of Norfolk Schools, oversaw the largest public education system in the state. With almost forty-five thousand students, the city ran thirty white schools and twenty black schools, and the district built nine new school buildings before the end of the decade.2
Since the time of the Alston case, Norfolk had made great strides to equalize its white and black schools. By 1950, for instance, the Norfolk city government paid higher salaries to its black teachers, who had more training and more years of experience, than their white counterparts. But, it was not only teachers who benefited from the equalization effort. By 1953, Norfolk 's School Board could claim -- with what now appears to have been a good bit of number crunching -- that the cost of educating a black child in the city's public schools was equal to that spent for a white child.3
The equalization strategy of the early 1950s was, no doubt, an effort to forestall any further challenge to the city's segregated public school system. Thus, when news of the Brown decision arrived, Duckworth, Brewbaker, and the other white leaders of the Norfolk community viewed it as an unwelcome surprise. These men had no desire to dismantle the segregated society they had helped construct, and the Supreme Court's decision in Brown II did little to change their minds. Although the high court ordered localities to desegregate with “all deliberate speed,” Duckworth and many of the city's leaders did all they could to delay implementation of the Brown order.
First, the city's leadership promoted the existing residential patterns in Norfolk , in an attempt to make desegregation seem practically unnecessary. As School Board Chairman Paul Schweitzer said, “There are only thirty percent Negroes in the Norfolk school system,” and they are “geographically located so that they are well taken care of in their present schools.” Superintendent Brewbaker agreed with Schweitzer, saying that even if desegregation occurred, “There would be few Negroes in white schools because of existing residential segregation.” This did not mean, Brewbaker assured the city's white community, that integration was a good idea. “We are all in favor of segregation,” he said. “It is just a question of what is the best plan. . . . I'm not in favor of integration. I'm in favor of carrying out the Supreme Court decree with the least harm to the pupils . . . and the schools.”4
This sort of obfuscation tactic was used by the Norfolk leadership because they found themselves in a difficult situation. As the largest city, with the largest school district, in the state, Norfolk was obviously a center of attention. White segregationists throughout Virginia insisted that Norfolk resist the federal mandate to integrate. Even though African Americans were in the minority in Norfolk , integration of the city's schools would affect other regions of the state, including the Southside, where African American students would make up a majority of the population in any new integrated schools. African Americans and civil rights advocates, on the other hand, insisted that Duckworth, Brewbaker, and Schweitzer meet their obligations under the Brown decree. As black families petitioned the school board to desegregate, and NAACP lawyers threatened lawsuits to enforce the Brown decision, the city's white leaders decided on a second course of action.
Rather than take full responsibility for the developing crisis, Norfolk 's white leaders left it to the State Department of Education to formulate a policy for integration. The state's policy was directed from afar by U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd, Virginia 's powerful political boss, who called for “massive resistance” to integration in February 1956. That winter, the Byrd organization drew on the work of James J. Kilpatrick, the Editor of the Richmond News Leader , who claimed to have discovered a legitimate constitutional defense against the Brown decision. Kilpatrick was enamored with James Madison's doctrine of interposition, which, although ultimately rejected by Madison himself, held that a state could “interpose” itself between its people and the federal government, if the United States attempted to violate the people's fundamental rights. On February 1, 1956 , at the behest of Byrd, the Virginia legislature passed a corresponding “Interposition Resolution,” pledging that the assembly intended “to resist by every means available the federal government's encroachment upon Virginia 's sovereign powers” over state education policy. A month later, Byrd championed a similar document at the national level, when he co-sponsored the “Southern Manifesto” in the U.S. Congress. Signed by 101 Southern senators and congressmen, the document declared that the Brown decision was a “clear abuse of judicial power,” and that the legislators who signed it agreed to “use all lawful means to bring about a reversal of this decision.” In the end, however, the most pragmatic legislative tactic that the Byrd machine sponsored in Virginia was the Pupil Placement Act (1956), which established a three-member, governor-appointed Pupil Placement Board. The Board successfully delayed integration in Norfolk , as in other Virginia cities, by keeping black students from white public schools because of locale, preparation, and other non-racial factors.5
In late 1956, in response to the delay tactics used by the state and local governments, a group of Norfolk's black parents hired NAACP lawyer Victor Ashe to file suit in Leola Pearl Beckett v. The School Board of the City of Norfolk (1956). Through the case, the parents hoped that that their children might gain access to the previously all-white public schools in Norfolk.6 In early 1957, U.S. District Judge Walter Hoffmann ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, ordering that the Norfolk School Board must cease its practice of assigning students to schools based on race.7 A year of legal appeals delayed the implementation of the decision, however, and in June 1958 the Beckett case was back before Judge Hoffmann. This time, he ordered the city to begin integrating its schools in September 1958.8 In response to the decision, Senator Byrd's head man in Norfolk , William Prieur, Jr., wrote to his boss: “ Norfolk will be on the front line when the schools open [in the fall of 1958]. Our definite plans are to close the schools if the Negroes attempt enrollment. All of this, of course, within the new laws of Virginia.”9
Indeed, it was. Earlier in 1958, the Virginia state legislature gave the Governor the power to close any of the state's white public schools scheduled to be integrated. On September 27, when seventeen black students sought to enroll at six of Norfolk 's white public schools, Governor Almond issued an executive order closing all six of Norfolk 's white schools that were to be integrated. Two days later, almost 10,000 white students found that they had no institution to attend. In addition, the seventeen African American students who sought to transfer into the previously all-white schools were locked-out. The “Norfolk 17” -- Geraldine Talley, Louis Cousins, Betty Jean Reed, Lolita Portis, Reginald Young, LaVera Forbes, James Turner Jr., Patricia Turner, Edward Jordan, Claudia Wellington, Andrew Heidelberg, Alvarez Gonsouland, Delores Johnson, Johnnie Rouse, Olivia Driver, Carol Wellington, and Patricia Godbolt -- attended school at Bute Street Baptist Church, where they were tutored by local teachers and supervised by the NAACP.10
As the school-closing crisis intensified in the winter of 1958, an effort was launched by James G. Martin, IV, and W.I. McKendree, the leaders of the segregationist Tidewater Educational Foundation, to divert public money to white private schools in Norfolk . Fittingly, however, the entire effort fell apart on the anniversary of Robert E. Lee's birth, January 19, 1959 . It was at that time, that the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals declared in Harrison v. Day that the school closings violated section 129 of Virginia 's State Constitution, which required the state to “maintain an efficient system of public free schools.” At the same time, the federal district court in Norfolk ruled in James v. Almond -- a case brought by white parents -- that Virginia 's school closing statute violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and that it was therefore illegal. After a semester of showdown, then, the “ Norfolk 17” entered six of the previously all-white schools in the city, and Massive Resistance ended.11
Although Norfolk 's six closed schools re-opened in February 1959, on a so-called “integrated” basis, the school closings were important for two reasons. First, the closings in Norfolk affected the largest school district in the state of Virginia , and resulted in the largest school closing crisis in the nation. And second, when Norfolk 's schools were reopened in 1959, it seemed as if a peaceful and legal resolution to the integration crisis might be possible, for Massive Resistance had been bested in the courts. This proposition would be tested over the next three decades, and would ultimately lead to the third major educational showdown in Norfolk -- over busing and desegregation.
1. White, Pride and Prejudice, chapter 1.
2. Rorer, History of Norfolk Public Schools, 85.
3. “Cost of Negro Schooling Hits 217.55 Per Pupil,” Norfolk Ledger Dispatch , August 21, 1953 , and “New Districts are Formed,” Norfolk Ledger Dispatch , December 12, 1951 quoted in White, Pride and Prejudice , 65.
4. Brewbaker and Schweitzer quoted in White, Pride and Prejudice , 71.
5. See Leidholdt, Standing Before the Shouting Mob, chapters 11-12. On Harry F. Byrd see, Matthew Lassiter and Andrew B. Lewis's "Massive Resistance Revisited: Virginia 's White Moderates and the Byrd Organization" in The Moderates Dilemma: Massive Resistance to School Desegregation in Virginia (Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1998). Also valuable are: James W. Ely, Jr., The Crisis of Conservative Virginia: The Byrd Organization and the Politics of Massive Resistance (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976), and Robbins L. Gates, The Making of Massive Resistance: Virginia's Politics of Public School Desegregation, 1954 – 1956 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1964).
6. Leola Pearl Beckett et al. v. The School Board of the City of Norfolk , Virginia , 148 F. Supp. 430.
7. Jim Henderson, “Norfolk Schools Ordered to Integrate in Fall,” Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, February 13, 1957 ; “13 Schools Affected by Integration,” Norfolk Virginian-Pilot , February 13, 1957 . In addition, see Leidholdt, Standing Before the Shouting Mob, chapter 11.
8. P. Bernard Young, Jr., “Key Participants in Norfolk School Integration Suit, Norfolk Journal and Guide , August 30, 1958; John I. Brooks, “Six Norfolk Schools Facing Closings Threat as Board Agrees to Admit 17 Negro Students,” Norfolk Virginian Pilot , August 30, 1958. See also Leidholdt, Standing Before the Shouting Mob, chapter 11.
9. Prieur quoted in Leidholdt, Standing Before the Shouting Mob, 86.
10. Interview, Delores Johnson Brown, March 2004, in the possession of the author.
11. Bly, “Thunder During the Storm,” 109-111. See also Leidholdt, Standing Before the Shouting Mob, chapters 11 and 12.