Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

School Desegregation in Roanoke, Virginia: The Black Student Perspective

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

School Desegregation in Roanoke, Virginia: The Black Student Perspective

Article excerpt


Brown v. Board of Education (1954) revolutionized American schools. Its impact on students, teachers, and communities was life-altering in many instances. Most people are familiar with images of desegregation: the composed young Black girl with sunglasses clasping her notebook to her body as an angry group of White people follows her, George Wallace standing in the doors of the University of Alabama, and National Guardsmen escorting children to school. Most people are familiar with the effects of desegregation: southern states acting with "all deliberate slowness," closure of all-Black schools, and White flight from city centers. Few people, though, are familiar with the individual stories from the people who actually lived through school desegregation.

The experiences of Black students who had only known all-Black schools their whole lives and were suddenly thrown into all-White schools were bound to produce a great deal of stress for them. These students went from segregated schools where they were valued, pushed, and understood as members of a community to desegregated schools where they were a minority, were often treated with hostility, and often were taught by White teachers who did not understand them (W alker, 2000). How did these students survive this transition? What motivated these students to go into a desegregated school, a hostile environment for many Blacks, day after day after day? How did that experience affect them then? How does it affect them today? What did they gain by attending desegregated schools? What did they lose? These questions remain largely unanswered as little attention has been given to their stories.

Of the countless Black students who were among the first to desegregate previously all-White schools, only five first-person accounts were identified in the literature. Melba Patillo Beals (1994), a member of the Little Rock Nine; Betty Kilby Fisher (2002), one of the first Black students to desegregate Warren County High School in Virginia; and Andrew Heidelberg (2006), a member of the Norfolk 17, have all written accounts detailing their experiences. Warren Simmons (2004) recounted his experience as one of the first elementary students to integrate P.S. 183 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in 1960. Sybil Stevenson (1978) described her experience being in the "second wave" of students to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

All of these accounts detail incidents of physical and verbal abuse, ranging from ignorant slights to outright premeditated violence. There are also other similarities that emerge from their experiences as well. Simmons (2004), Beals (1994), and Heidelberg (2006) all reported having to deal with what Simmons termed dual citizenship. Each of them was trying to fit into a White culture at school while trying to maintain their Black culture at home. The end result was that they were rejected in both arenas: Both Black and White peers shunned them. Another similarity these students shared was their reliance on others for support in surviving the process of desegregation. Stevenson (1978) and Fisher (2002) also reported leaning on the other students who were going through the experience. Heidelberg discussed the meetings the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) held for him and his cohort in Norfolk that helped support them. A final similarity from the experiences of these students was that one of the few bright spots in their schools was the cafeteria. Stevenson, Beals, and Heidelberg all spoke of the cafeteria workers, most of whom were Black, greeting them warmly and making them feel welcome at the school.

Their experiences had important effects on these students. Each of the students, except for Simmons (2004), reported feelings of inferiority or invisibility. Heidelberg (2006) said he began to feel inferior to Whites and felt he was cursed for being Black and poor. Stevenson (1978) described that she probably knew everything there was to know about everyone in the school because White students would talk openly and freely around her as if she were not there. …

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