From Desegregation to Resegregation: Public Schools in Norfolk, Virginia 1954-2002

Article excerpt

In the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Supreme Court declared separate public schools for African American and white students unconstitutional. This essay examines the history and evolution of school desegregation in Norfolk, Virginia from 1954 to 2002. "Massive resistance" by whites in Virginia to school desegregation began almost immediately following the 1954 decision. Meanwhile, African Americans, with the assistance of the NAACP, fought tirelessly and quietly to end school segregation. Real school desegregation was finally achieved in Norfolk through the implementation of an intra-district busing program in 1972. Yet, Norfolk would return to segregation, or experience resegregation, after the ending of the busing policy at the elementary school level in 1986 and at the middle school level in 2001.

The Brown decision did not solve the problem of segregation in the Norfolk public schools and failed to bring about equal educational opportunities for African Americans in the city. Indeed, progress towards that goal was marred by conflict. Moreover, since 1954 the context for school desegregation has changed, as have the policies and positions of those in charge of the Norfolk public schools. What has remained constant, according to Charles Bryant, former president of the Norfolk branch of the NAACP, is the demand for quality education for African American students. (1) Though segregation diminished and educational opportunities for African Americans improved in the 1970s, in the 1980s little significant progress was made, and the situation began to deteriorate.

MASSIVE RESISTANCE TO BROWN: 1954-1959

The court ruling in 1954 calling for the desegregation of the public schools was not received well in Virginia, a state, but also "a state of mind--a very special state of mind." (2) Virginians were adamant supporters of states' rights and fought hard to maintain racially discriminatory practices, including separate and unequal public schools. In 1954 Governor Thomas B. Stanley declared he would "use every legal means at my command to continue segregated schools in Virginia." (3) However, it was not the governor who had the most political influence in the state of Virginia, but Senator Harry F. Byrd and his powerful Democratic machine. Byrd's belief that the Brown decision was "illegal" and "the most serious blow that has been struck against the rights of the states" reflected the sentiment of the majority of white Virginians. (4) Massive resistance was necessary, it was thought, since the Supreme Court was not only wrong, but was also interfering with the rights of the people of Virginia. Massive resistance in Virginia began in 1954 and continued to the end of the decade.

In September 1954 Governor Stanley appointed a legislative commission to examine possible courses of action in response to the Supreme Court's decision. The group, known as the Gray Commission, was chaired by Senator Garland Gray, a Byrd loyalist. The Gray Plan, released in November 1955, sought to "preserve segregation, and yet to avoid conflict with the Court." (5) The plan called for tuition grants from public funds to aid white students attending private schools to avoid integration, a new pupil assignment plan to minimize race mixing, and an amendment to the compulsory attendance law so that no child would be required to attend an integrated school. Equal educational opportunities for African American students were not addressed.

In a state-wide referendum held in January 1956, the plan was approved by a near two to one margin. White leaders interpreted the result as a clear sign of the public's support for the maintenance of segregation. President Dwight D. Eisenhower remained noticeably silent about the situation in Virginia, following the advice of his press secretary James C. Hagerty who suggested that, "no comment be made which would be interpreted as either approving or disapproving the vote of the people of Virginia. …