Black Students Recount Early Days of Integration

Michael Sluss, Roanoke Times, July 21, 2009

For some of the black students who took the first steps toward integrating Virginia’s public schools more than a half-century ago, the memories of their hardships have not faded with time.

“That was the worst two and a half years of my life,” said Andrew Heidelberg, one of 17 black students to attend previously all-white Norfolk public schools in 1959, as Virginia’s efforts to resist racial integration began slowly to unravel.

“Most people really don’t understand how we were treated,” Heidelberg said Friday at the state Capitol, where former students, lawyers, academics and political leaders examined the legacy of Virginia’s “massive resistance” movement.

The conference was organized by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics for its 12th annual Virginia Political History Project.

Black students recounted the fear, verbal abuse and other indignities they suffered when they ventured into all-white schools. Political leaders, including two former governors, recalled the extreme steps Virginia’s government took to keep blacks from attending school with whites.

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Virginia’s massive resistance policy was the state’s final attempt to defy the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 and subsequent federal court orders to integrate public schools. The state’s resistance was effectively led by former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd, whose conservative Democratic organization dominated state and local politics.

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In the fall of 1958, several schools in Norfolk, Charlottesville and Warren County were closed to evade court orders to integrate, but courts forced the schools to reopen in February 1959.

But the students who integrated those schools {snip} encountered threats, epithets and ugly stereotypes, even from adults. Delores Brown, who joined Heidelberg at Norfolk’s Norview High School, said an administrator refused to let her take a physical education class and told her, “You’re not going to be dirtying up our showers, now go on to your class.”

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Henry Cabarrus recalled the fear he felt when he joined in a lawsuit challenging the closing of schools in Prince Edward County, which remained closed until 1964.

“People will see me, they’ll know me and they’ll kill me,” he remembered thinking.

The demise of massive resistance did not trigger swift integration of public schools. Virginia preserved various forms of “passive resistance,” developing freedom-of-choice plans and repealing compulsory attendance laws. Those measures, along with white flight from the cities, slowed the pace of integration in the 1960s. Former Gov. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first elected black governor, told the conference that “the lingering effects of decades of justifying segregation continues.”

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Wilder said massive resistance had devastating consequences for students who were denied educations, and he spared no criticism of those in government and the media who enabled and encouraged the policy. Wilder worried whether younger generations will take advantage of opportunities created for them by those who knocked down the walls of institutional racism.

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