The Thunder during the Storm-School Desegregation in Norfolk, Virginia, 1957-1959: A Local History

Article excerpt

This article contends that Norfolk, Virginia, serves as a microcosm of the social tensions that flared throughout the South in the wake of the 1954 and 1955 Brown school desegregation rulings. It provides a retrospective look at regional, state, and local actions pertinent to Norfolk's desegregation experience between 1957 and 1959. Examining both the impact of White southerners' massive resistance to desegregation and the efforts of Black and moderate White Norfolkians to advance school integration, the author maintains that the "storm" wrought by this conflict met its demise in February 1959, when 17 Black students were peacefully admitted to the city's previously all-White secondary schools.

The 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas not only overturned Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), but it also provided the legal recourse for African Americans to attack and dispel the racially discriminating practices that were common throughout the United States during the early half of the 20th century, particularly in the public schools. Although the desegregation of the nation's armed services in 1948 was a sign that the racial attitudes and conditions between Blacks and Whites were changing, the Brown decision was the catalyst that triggered the South's resistance to school desegregation. Shortly after the Court issued its landmark decision in the Brown case, Richmond (Virginia) newspaper editor James J. Kilpatrick, inspired by the 18th-century idea of interposition, or state's rights, defined southern defiance of school desegregation efforts as "massive resistance" (Dabney, 1971, p. 536). The purpose of this resistance was to undermine Brown and protect the southern tradition of segregation. It was manifested in the efforts of White southern lawyers and lawmakers to appeal the Supreme Court's decision and to legislate state laws that funded not only White flight from the public schools but the building of separate but equal schools for African Americans (Campbell, Bowerman, & Price, 1960; Dabney, 1971). Notwithstanding, the widespread defiance of Whites in the state of Virginia would eventually collapse under the pressure of federal efforts to enforce integration, resulting in a domino effect on massive resistance throughout the South.

In the wake of Brown, state legislators in Virginia passed a number of massive resistance laws in an attempt to block or delay desegregation and yield only token school integration in that state (Campbell et al., 1960). Among these was the Pupil Placement Act of 1956 ("Education: Public Schools-Virginia," 1956). Conceived as part of a lawful stratagem to nullify the Brown decision, this piece of legislation and its resultant political agencies, the Pupil Placement Boards (PPBs), formed the centerpieces of Virginia's massive resistance undertakings (Dabney, 1971). By decreeing that the enrollment of African American students in previously Whites-only schools would disrupt the efficiency of those schools' operations, the PPB maintained the segregated status quo in Virginia's schools for nearly two years after the Court's ruling.

The Gray and Almond plans, named after Virginia governors Stanley Gray and J. Lindsay Almond, were two other legal tactics used by the state of Virginia to avoid school desegregation (Dabney,1971). The Gray Plan established state-funded tuition grants for White students who did not want to attend integrated schools to attend private or parochial schools. The Almond Plan empowered the governor with the authority to close the state's public schools and cut off funding to those schools in the event that the federal government forced the state to comply with Brown.

In the port city of Norfolk, Virginia, the evasive legislative manuevering of the lawmakers in the state capital coalesced into a peculiar and telling event. Norfolk did not have the large Black population characteristic of other Virginian and southern cities, nor did its racial climate match that of the precarious situations in Little Rock, Arkansas, or Prince Edward County, Virginia. …