While the Brown v. Board of Education ruling called for desegregation with “all deliberate speed” in 1954, many states took drastic actions to prevent racial integration.1 In Virginia, the movement of Massive Resistance, ignited by US Senator Harry Byrd, opposed federal legislation and continued to fiercely enforce segregation.2 Five years after the reversal of the “separate but equal” standard set by Plessy v. Ferguson, the Norfolk School Board approved the admittance of seventeen African American students (called the “Norfolk 17”) into previously all-white schools. Refusing to allow this act of integration, Virginia governor James Almond assumed “all power and control over such schools.”3 In a letter to the superintendent of Norfolk City Schools, Almond declared Northside and Blair junior high schools, Maury and Granby high schools, and Norview’s middle and high school officially closed and removed from the public school system effective September 29, 1958.4 This move, following the policies of Massive Resistance, prevented “one-third of the entire white population” from attending public school.5 By blatantly disregarding the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Governor Almond created a crisis in Norfolk that robbed thousands of students of public education.
In response to this disaster, which crippled the Norfolk community, women united on an interracial front in order to oppose state tyranny and lead the movement to reopen Norfolk public schools by fostering a shared sense of purpose and engaging in social networking, and political activity. In order to challenge the state, Norfolk women connected through social groups that shared the same interest of interracial relations and public education. Founded in 1945, the Women’s Council for Interracial Cooperation (WCIC) began with a modest membership of nineteen women, eight black and eleven white, with the priorities of “education, health, and housing”.6 By the end of that year, the group grew to eighty-six members.7 Vivian Carter Mason, a leader in the black community and chairperson of the WCIC, was inspired to organize the Council due to the vast inequalities between the black and white communities. In April 1945, Mason called upon a diverse group of women from various Norfolk civic organizations to join her in the fight for local causes.8 Member Edith White recalled in an interview that the Council was a “marvelous opportunity to know people that cross racial lines,” as well as to know women with common experiences and interests, such as higher education, civic activism, and passion for the community.9
A primary concern for the Women’s Council for Interracial Cooperation was public education, and the women bonded over their shared investment in the needs of equality and improvement in the local education system. Black schools did not have updated technology, such as electric typewriters, that white schools used, and teachers at black schools were deprived of basic supplies and books.10 Despite their humanitarian purpose, the WCIC met many challenges as well as resistance throughout their existence. One of their earliest challenges proved to be as simple as finding a public meeting place to host the interracial congregation. Private homes were too small and intimate, but many restaurants and churches were unsupportive and unaccepting of their interracial make-up.11 After a disheartening search for “a place where everybody was equally welcome,” the WCIC was finally invited to meet at the Unitarian Church.12 During their first few years of work together, the WCIC began an integrated nursery school, and in order to obtain information, visited and surveyed black schools. The Norfolk Baptist churches were inspired by the WCIC and later established a similar group. The Baptist churches founded an interracial committee “under its women’s organization… [which] was sort of autonomous,” but still sheltered by the church from social pressures.13 Representatives from both black and white Baptist churches would gather twice a year, forming a safe place to meet and address issues in the church and the community.
Once united in female coalitions, women’s groups gained popularity and power in Norfolk by capitalizing on social connections to enlist more support. News of these recently-created interracial and social groups spread first by word of mouth. As women reached out to their friends and encouraged them to join, they motivated a previously dormant political base. When Edith White spoke of her work with the local organizations, one friend responded that she would “just love to work on it, but [she was] just afraid [she] wouldn’t have any friends,” fearing she would be out of place in political groups.14 One woman said she had “let my husband do the voting” because it was not considered the feminine thing to do.15 Despite living in an era decades after the fight for suffrage, many women in Norfolk still failed to exercise their right to vote or even consider civic activism. Yet, when local Mary Thrasher ran for office in the late 1950s, many women became “politically awakened.”16 In reaction to the 1958 closings, female coalitions resourcefully integrated the recently motivated women of Norfolk to broaden their voting base “so no one could control it,” lessening the movement’s dependence on the male vote.17 This female entrance into and interest in local affairs prepared women to take action at the time of the education crisis and defend Norfolk public schools from the state mandate.
After assuming leadership in the effort to reopen the Norfolk public schools, the women’s groups continued to expand their base within the community, raise awareness of the detrimental effects of the school closings, and work towards gaining public support. Women on the Norfolk Committee for Public Schools (NCPS) generated a calling center in order to reach out to neighbors, local businessmen, pastors, and other leaders in the community. They discovered “that secretly there were a lot of people in the community” who supported their cause and rejected Governor Almond’s authoritarian declaration.18 In the beginning of the movement, however, business leaders were hesitant to side with the activists, fearing retribution from the state.
While the groups supporting integration received empathy from parents sharing similar fears for their children’s disrupted education and compromised futures, the women also faced no shortage of enemies. Edith White and her family were personally threatened, receiving “real hate calls...by the barrel” in response to her activism in the Women’s Council for Interracial Cooperation and the Norfolk Committee for Public Schools.19 Others received discomforting letters and became estranged from family members because they did not share the same political ideals.20 Groups like the WCIC and the NCPS struggled against the “staunch Virginia opinion…that things should stay exactly as they were if not moved backward.”21 This harsh, yet realistic, sentiment is illustrated in a letter to the editor of the Virginian Pilot in September 1959. Mrs. Mildred Kerley wrote zealously that children were learning from this experience, not losing from it, living out a lesson that “all the books in the world can’t teach them.”22 Mrs. Kerley and many others had the “back of [the governor] 100 per cent” and encouraged the drastic measures to prevent desegregation.23
Whether or not families supported the closings, they were forced to cope with the shut down of the schools, which left 10,000 children without public education.24 Some families moved out of state, arranged for their children to live with relatives, or enrolled them in private schools. Such private institutions included the Tidewater Educational Foundation, Inc. and the Charlottesville Education Foundation, segregated programs supporting Virginia’s Massive Resistance.25 A popular alternative to segregated private schools were tutoring programs, largely established by women who were active in interracial and politically inclined social networks.
These programs were contingency plans drawn up to create a stable environment for children to continue their studies despite the deserted schools. Groups of parents worked together to form tutoring groups and hire teachers left unemployed by the sudden closures. For a small fee, students could join a group and enjoy “the School Board plans, the School Board curriculum, [and] the School Boards’ choice of books,” mimicking the same academic atmosphere without the physical school building.26 With some 4,000 students enrolled in these tutoring classes, the groups met wherever there was room—some in churches, others in family basements or attics.27 Despite the availability of tutoring programs, the Norfolk 17 were tutored separately from the white students. Though the black students were invited to join white tutoring groups, they declined, likely in order to strengthen their case and emphasize the need for public integration.28 On the other hand, many seniors of the so-called “Lost Class of ’59” gave up entirely on the idea of completing their academic year and graduating on time. Some married, and others took the GED, enlisted in the military, or moved away.29 Due to civic activism and a high degree of organization, the women were able to provide tutoring groups as an alternative measure of instruction for thousands of students whose educations were abandoned by the state.
The severity of the crisis became more evident when the schools did not reopen in October. At this time, women took collective action through political groups, media coverage, and litigation to raise awareness of the dire situation, gaining national attention for their cause. Many members of the Women’s Council for Interracial Cooperation collaborated with the Norfolk Committee for Public Schools. Edith White, a member of both organizations, recalled in 1982 the “marvelous women who appeared and took leadership roles and responsibilities and helped raise the funds” in the NCPS.30 Through their social connections and other organizations, women were vital in the effort to recruit members and funds for the NCPS, printing ads that called for public action against the state. Women’s reach in these political activities continued to expand, as they held certain influences and positions within the organizations. For example, almost half of the executive members of the NCPS were women: Mrs. Eugene D. Kidd was the second Vice President as well as Stuart School PTA president, and Mrs. Joseph Commander was on the NCPS executive committee and was the former head of the Women’s Division of Civil Defense in Norfolk.31 Moreover, Edith White’s husband was the president of the NCPS, which influenced and facilitated the Committee’s support of the WCIC.32
In a late September copy of the Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch and Star, the Norfolk Committee for Public Schools printed a coupon for readers to cut and send to the Committee in order to petition the state government to reopen the schools. The advertisement urged the people of Norfolk to consider “not Massive Resistance, but Intelligence Insistence” as an efficient answer to the education crisis, pleading that the direction of the schools should be returned to the Norfolk School Board and out of state grasp.33 The ad also invited readers to write to Norfolk’s Mayor Duckworth as well as Governor Almond, which the WCIC did fervently. Activists also wrote to both President Chambers on the Commission for Public Education and Governors Stanley and Almond about improving race relations in Norfolk.34
Another effective form of political activity during the Norfolk school crisis involved media appearances, which helped the movement evolve from a grassroots effort to a national concern. The state’s education injustices became known when a national television documentary, The Lost Class of ’59, aired on CBS in January 1959.35 In this primetime exclusive, Margaret White, a government teacher at the then-closed Granby High School, delivered a moving speech about the heartless neglect of the education of Norfolk’s youth by the state as a result of Almond’s actions. She addressed the innate equality of children of different races, describing how black and white students shared academic experiences, such as struggling with the same math problems.36 Margaret was applauded for her stand against segregation across the country, receiving fan mail written the same night the documentary aired. One letter was written by Virginia Walls Jones, a women who followed the Norfolk crisis through the New York Times, describing how “we cheered your speech.”37 Another admirer, Ester B., encouraged Margaret for her activism on such an important matter, expressing “what a good politician [she] would make!”38 This media coverage helped propel the local Virginia women’s cause onto the national stage.
In addition, the NCPS’s efforts and funds also supported lawsuits brought against the state regarding the closures. Besides being the first female student of the Norfolk Division of the College of William & Mary (now Old Dominion University), Ruth James was an NCPS and WCIC member, and her family were the head litigants in a lawsuit to reopen the public schools.39 While unable to bring the suit directly, the NCPS gave support to “these individuals who had the courage and conviction...to restore the rights” of children in public education, arguing that Governor Almond had violated the 14th Amendment.40 Federal judges of the case James v. Almond found the school closings to be “unconstitutional and illegal” in January 1959.41 Moreover, the court ruled that the state “has the obligation to furnish such education...on an equal basis.”42 James v. Almond was the final effort in the six-month battle against Massive Resistance. A month after the court decision, in February 1959, the schools reopened and the Norfolk 17 were integrated into the public schools, bringing the city’s education crisis to an end.
Despite state and national support, integration was not necessarily the primary goal for all parties. In a 2009 interview with WHRO TV, a Hampton Roads station, surviving members of the Lost Class of 1959 explained that reopening the schools and desegregation were not the same case. They recalled that they were generally not concerned with the controversy of integration, but were instead preoccupied with the movement to return to school. These Norfolk seniors were more interested in graduating on time, regardless of the integrated state of the schools.43
While both blacks and many whites fought to reopen Norfolk public schools, racial tensions existed throughout the process. The Norfolk 17 received nonviolent yet unequal treatment in their new integrated school environment. Patricia Turner, enrolled at Norview Junior High along with Skip Turner, her twelve-year-old brother, had a teacher who wore gloves to collect her papers or had the girl drop them in a basket.44 Similarly, Betty Jean Reed, the only black student at Granby High School, was excluded from the prom in 1961, two years after integration.45 Dolores Johns commuted by car for her own safety after being stalked by six white men while walking to school. Furthermore, a cross was burned at the door of Patricia Godbolt’s home in an attempt to discourage her from attending Norview High school.46 While the inequalities in treatment and quality of education in Norfolk public schools persisted, the 1959 integration was a major victory on the eve of the national civil rights movement.
A smooth implementation of integration in Norfolk was far from expected, but the courage and perseverance of the Norfolk 17 resulted in revolutionary advancement for the state of Virginia. Their success is largely due to the support of the unified women’s groups and their political activity, which was essential in mobilizing the community, gaining national media recognition, and funding the lawsuit against Governor Almond that neutralized his executive action to close the schools in September 1958. The unprecedented female empowerment and cooperation that surpassed racial boundaries shown by the women in Norfolk enabled historic progress in the fight to end segregation.
About The Author
Anna Pope is a second year undergraduate student studying history, international studies, and Spanish at Virginia Tech. Many oral histories, newspaper articles, images, and other primary sources referenced in this work were exclusively accessed with the courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives, Patricia W. and J. Douglas Perry Library, Old Dominion University Libraries.
School Desegregation in Norfolk, Virginia. Old Dominion University Libraries Digital Collections. http://dc.lib.odu.edu/cdm/.
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United States Courts. “History of Brown vs. Board of Education.” Accessed February 14, 2015. http://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/get-involved/federal-court-activities/brown-board-education-re-enactment/history.aspx.
Virginia Historical Society. “Massive Resistance.” Accessed February 14, 2015. http://www.vahistorical.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/civil-rights-movement-virginia/massive.
CBS News. “The Other Face of Dixie”. Accessed May 13, 2014, http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/the-other-face-of-dixie/.
Dykeman, Wilma and James Stokely. “Report on ‘The Lost Class of ’59’”. Digital Scan. The New York Times Magazine, January 4, 2959. From Old Dominion University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives, Norfolk, Virginia. http://dc.lib.odu.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/sdinv/id/1451/rec/29 (accessed May 13, 1959).
Vote for Public Schools. Norfolk, VA: Norfolk Committee for Public Schools, 1958. Accessed February 14, 2015. http://dc.lib.odu.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/sdinv/id/1354/rec/4.
White, Forrest P. “‘YOU’ Can Do Something About Opening the Schools!”. Digital Scan. Norfolk, The Ledger-Dispatch and Star, September 30, 1958. From Old Dominion University Libraries Special Collections and Digital Archives.
Old Dominion University Libraries Digital Collections. “The Norfolk 17.” School Desegregation in Norfolk, VA. Accessed February 14, 2015. http://dc.lib.odu.edu/cdm/norfolk17/collection/sdinv/.
1 Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. “HISTORY OF BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION.” United States Courts. Accessed February 14, 2015. http://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/get-involved/federal-court-activities/brown-board-education-re-enactment/history.aspx.
2 Virginia Historical Society. “Massive Resistance,” accessed February 14, 2015. http://www.vahistorical.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/civil-rights-movement-virginia/massive.
3 “Letter to J.J. Brewbaker and the Norfolk School Board from J. Lindsey Almond,” September 28, 1958, in the Old Dominion University Libraries Digital Collection, http://dc.lib.odu.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/sdinv/id/1907/rec/14.
4 “Letter to J.J. Brewbaker,” September 28, 1959.
5 Dykeman, Wilma, and Stokely, James, “Report on ‘The Lost Class of ‘59’”. Digital Scan. The New York Times Magazine, January 4, 29, Old Dominion University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia.
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7 Summary of Women’s Council’s Work for Schools 1945-1959, 1959, in the Old Dominion University Libraries Digital Collection, accessed May 13, 2014, http://dc.lib.odu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/sdinv/id/1665.
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10 Vivian Carter Mason, interview by Zelda Silverman, Oral History Interview with Vivian Carter Mason, Part 3, October 19, 1978, accessed May 2014, http://dc.lib.odu.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/oralhistory/id/510/rec/1.
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21 Edith White, interview.
22 Mildred Kerley, “What Children Are Learning,” The Virginian-Pilot, September 17, 1958, in the Old Dominion University Libraries Digital Collection, accessed May 13, 2014, http://dc.lib.odu.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/sdinv/id/1343/rec/10.
23 Mildred Kerley, “What Children Are Learning.”
24 Dykeman and Stokely, “The Lost Class of ’59’.”
25 “Rallying Point’ for Parents: Committee Is Formed to Keep Schools Open.” The Virginian-Pilot, September 19, 1959. in the Old Dominion University Libraries Digital Collection,, accessed May 2014, http://dc.lib.odu.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/sdinv/id/4134/rec/1; Nancy Mason, interview by George Gilliam, 2000. “The Ground Beneath Our Feet” project. Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia. Charlottesville, Virginia.
26 Nancy Mason, interview.
27 Dykeman and Stokely, “The Lost Class of ’59’.”
28 Nancy Mason, interview.
29 Dykeman and Stokely, “The Lost Class of ’59’.”
30 Edith White, interview.
31 Forrest P. White, “‘YOU’ Can Do Something About Opening the Schools!” The Ledger-Dispatch and Star, September 30, 1958, in the Old Dominion University
32 Edith White, interview.
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34 Halecki, “Women’s Council for Interracial Cooperation Papers”.
35 NEA News. “Ed Murrow Airs ‘Lost Class of ’59’.” January 9, 1959, in the Old Dominion University Libraries Digital Collection,, accessed May 13, 2014, http:// dc.lib.odu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/npsdp/id/1171.
36 The Other Face of Dixie. 57 mm film. (CBS News 1959), accessed May 13, 2014, http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/the-other-face-of-dixie/.
37 Virginia Wall Jones, Virginia Wall Jones to Margaret White, January 22, 1959, letter, in the Old Dominion University Libraries Digital Collection,accessed May 13, 2014, http://dc.lib.odu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/sdinv/id/1406.
38 B. Ester, letter, Ester B. to Margaret White, January 21, 1959, in the Old Dominion University Libraries Digital Collection, http://dc.lib.odu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/sdinv/id/1358.
39 Ruth James, interview.
40 Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch. “Committee Hails Suit on Schools: Only Reopening Hope Rests in Today’s Move, Brewer Says,” October 27, 1958, in the Old Dominion University Libraries Digital Collection, accessed May 13, 2014, http://dc.lib.odu.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/sdinv/id/3472/rec/10.
41 “School Desegregation in Norfolk, Virginia: Timeline,” Old Dominion University Libraries, accessed May 13, 2014, http://dc.lib.odu.edu/cdm/timeline/collection/sdinv/.
42 Walter E. Hoffman, “Three-Judge Federal Court - Text of Integration Case Opinion.” The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA), January 20, 1959.
43 “What Matters—The Lost Class of 1959”, You Tube video, 26:45, posted by WHRO TV, February 10, 2009, file://localhost/. https://www.youtube. com:watch%3Fv=LojPOdMXA68.
44 Karen Vaughan, “The Norfolk 17: Patricia Turner”. School Desegregation in Norfolk, Virginia. Last modified 2008, accessed February, 2015. http://dc.lib.odu.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/sdinv/id/4409/rec/23.
45 Karen Vaughan, “The Norfolk 17: Betty Jean Reed”. School Desegregation in Norfolk, Virginia. Last modified 2008, accessed February, 2015. http://dc.lib.odu.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/sdinv/id/4411/rec/24.
46 Karen Vaughan, “The Norfolk17: Patricia Godbolt”. School Desegregation in Norfolk, Virginia. Last modified 2008, accessed February 14, 2015. http://dc.lib.odu.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/sdinv/id/4636/rec/16.