Norfolk and the Brown Decision

This year, Norfolk State University joins the nation in commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education (1954). As part of our ongoing Race, Time, and Place project, we have established the following e-learning website, entitled The Brown Decision in Norfolk, Virginia. This new project employs the methods of local and comparative history, as it seeks to place the Brown decision in "a proper sense of perspective."

The city of Norfolk provides a wonderful context in which to examine Brown. Although often overlooked, Norfolk was one of the oldest and most important cities involved in the desegregation struggles of the last century. As such, it witnessed three major educational battles, which may help us frame the Brown decision in the long-developing and complex series of events that have defined the relationship between race and public education in America.

The first pivotal showdown began in Norfolk during the era of “separate but equal,” years before the Brown decision in 1939. By that time, sixty-eight years of segregation had created tremendous inequality in the city's white and black schools. In response, Aline Black and Melvin Alston, two African American teachers at Booker T. Washington High School, joined with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and lawyer Thurgood Marshall to file suit against the City of Norfolk so that they might win salaries equal to those of their white counterparts. Although Black lost her case and was unable to secure an appeal, Alston won his -- the first such equalization victory in the state of Virginia . Although Alston's success had no immediate impact on segregation itself, the NAACP's victory in cases like his paved the way for a switch in legal strategy that would soon challenge the entire idea of “separate but equal.”1

The second educational showdown began in Norfolk soon after the Brown decision, in 1956. Disgusted with the Massive Resistance tactics promoted by Senator Harry F. Byrd, several African American families in Norfolk sued the School Board for its failure to desegregate the public schools. What followed was a hard-fought 3 year legal battle, pitting Mayor W. F. Duckworth, local segregationists, and Governor J. Lindsay Almond, Jr. against local African American families and the NAACP. The tides turned many times during the struggle, but in the summer of 1958, District Court Judge Walter Hoffman ordered that Norfolk begin integrating its previously all-white schools. In response, Governor Almond shut down the six schools that were to be integrated, displacing almost 10,000 students in the largest district in the state. It took two further judicial decisions -- one by the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and the other by the Federal District Court in Norfolk -- to re-open the schools in February 1959. The six previously all-white schools were then open to the “ Norfolk 17,” and these brave African American students were soon in classes with nearly 10,000 white students. Although Massive Resistance had been defeated, the school closings represented how difficult the road ahead would be for supporters of integration and equality.2

The third educational showdown began in Norfolk during the early 1980s, as the city's leaders considered ending cross-town busing for elementary school children. Court-ordered busing for desegregation had begun in Norfolk in 1971. By 1975, the city had achieved “unitary” status, which meant that the federal courts no longer considered Norfolk a segregated public school system. Although cross-town busing continued, the next ten years produced a dramatic transformation in the racial composition of Norfolk 's public schools. White children were leaving the district in large numbers, and the system was becoming increasingly African American. As a result, in 1982, the School Board sponsored six public forums to consider a proposal to end the cross-town busing of elementary school children, which many people believed to be a major cause of “white flight” from the district. Parents and community leaders immediately took sides in the debate, which resulted in the School Board's approval of the proposal to end cross-town busing. The fight was not over, however. Within a month, several African American leaders filed suit in Riddick v. School Board of the City of Norfolk . The case was not decided until 1986, when the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued the first federal opinion permitting a school district to dismantle its integration plan. Norfolk would no longer bus its elementary school children.3

Had Norfolk 's struggle for educational equality come full circle since Brown v. Board of Education ? It is our hope that by looking at the Riddick case and the earlier educational battles in Norfolk , we may begin to place the Brown decision within the larger struggle for educational rights in America -- that we may gain what Thurgood Marshall called a “proper sense of perspective” on the past.



1. The Black and Alston cases are covered in several locations. I found the following works most helpful: Earl Lewis, In Their Own Interests: Race, Class, and Power in Twentieth Century Norfolk, Virginia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 155-166; J. Douglas Smith, Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics, and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 256-272; and Bruce Beezer, "Black Teachers' Salaries and the Federal Courts Before Brown v. Board of Education : One Beginning for Equity," The Journal of Negro Education 55 (Spring 1986): 200-213.

2. Norfolk 's school integration crisis is discussed in numerous books and articles. I found the following most helpful: Forrest R. White, Pride and Prejudice: School Desegregation and Urban Renewal in Norfolk, 1950 – 1959 (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1992); Alexander Leidholdt, Standing Before the Shouting Mob: Lenoir Chambers and Virginia's Massive Resistance to Public School Integration (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997); Antonio T. Bly, “The Thunder During the Storm -- School Desegregation in Norfolk, Virginia, 1957-1959: A Local History.” Journal of Negro Education 67 (1998): 106-114.

3. The Riddick case is covered in Susan E. Eaton and Christina Meldrum, "Broken Promises: Resegregation in Norfolk , Virginia ," in Dismantling Desegregation , ed. Gary Orfield and Susan Eaton (New York: The New Press, 1996); and, Deborah Moira Jewell-Jackson, “Ending Mandatory Busing for Desegregation in Norfolk, Virginia: A Case Study Explaining the Decision Making Process in a Formerly De Jure Southern School District” (Ph.D. diss., Harvard Graduate School of Education, 1995).






J.H. Smythe School, one of Norfolk's original four Schools, 1858 | full size

Students protest the firing of Aline Black, June 1939. | full size | source

Students playing at a local African American school | full size

George Hayes, Thurgood Marshall,
and James Nabrit, 1954 | source


Senator Harry F. Byrd | source


Governor J. Lindsay Almond, Jr
on the cover of Time |


Norfolk in the early 1950s | source