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ODU Libraries Online Exhibitions

INTRODUCTION

U.S. Supreme Court Building

U.S. Supreme Court Building

In 1954, as a result of the Brown v. Board of Education court case, the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional. Many southern states, including Virginia, saw this ruling as a violation of states' rights. Virginia's General Assembly initiated a program of "Massive Resistance" to prevent its schools from desegregating.

Four years later, after every effort of massive resistance was blocked by the courts, Governor J. Lindsay Almond, Jr. closed down schools in cities and counties of Virginia that were set to admit African-American students. Norfolk had the largest number of students of any school system in Virginia: in 1958, 10,000 Norfolk students were out of school. 

For five months, Norfolk parents sought alternative educational venues for their children. Lawsuits were filed to reopen the schools. Groups organized to fight the governor's order. A nationally televised program brought unwanted attention to Norfolk's crisis.

Norfolk 17 Students at First Baptist Church

Norfolk 17 Students at First Baptist Church

Throughout all the city turmoil, in a makeshift school in the basement of First Baptist Church on Bute Street, 17 African-American children were being taught academics as well as lessons on how to survive the worst discrimination they would ever face. They were the "Norfolk 17," preparing to integrate six previously all-white Norfolk public schools. After both the State Supreme Court and the Federal District Court struck down the Massive Resistance laws, the schools reopened on February 2, 1959, and the Norfolk 17 took their place in history.

"By the late 1960s, the vast majority of Norfolk schools remained either 90 percent white or 90 percent black." In 1971, busing was the new approach to desegregation. While the benefits of busing have always created controversy, "integrating Norfolk schools has remained an elusive goal." (Bradley, News Article, 2004)

Primary source materials in the Special Collections & University Archives of the Old Dominion University Libraries document events since the Brown decision, the "massive resistance" efforts, the school closings, and the aftermath. News clippings, correspondence, reports, legal documents and oral histories document the activities of the Norfolk School Board, the Norfolk Committee on Public Schools, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuits initiated to reopen the schools, a teacher, and others. Information on Virginia's reaction to the Supreme Court's decision as a whole is also included. 

Materials digitized from these collections make up the School Desegregation in Norfolk, Virginia digital collection. This digital exhibit uses materials from the digital collection to help tell the story of Norfolk's school desegregation and pays tribute to the Norfolk 17, the 17 young people whose sacrifices allowed greater educational opportunities for all children. Timeline of events and an extensive list of Resources are available in this exhibition for those who wish to research this time period more fully.

INTRODUCTION