Decades later, Norfolk woman reflects on being one of the first Black students to step into an all-white school

Black History Month

'Integration happened because of the law, not because of the heart'

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY)  – In 1963, Sharon McGlone’s bus picked her up and whisked her off to her first day at a new school.  

“All we were thinking about at 9 years old was ‘Who’s going to be my friend?’” McGlone recalled recently.

She also knew, though, that her first day was a first-in-history for Spotsylvania County.  

“We knew that some of the push back was because whites did not want Blacks coming into their space,” she said. 

McGlone was venturing into one of those white spaces: Robert E. Lee Elementary School.  

“My grandmother and other parts of the family, who were very active in the NAACP, knew what the law was,” she said. “The law was that education should be equal.” 

Although McGlone’s parents were proud alumni of local Black schools, as a military family, they noticed integrated schools on bases had greater resources.  

They decided Sharon, along with six other girls, would be a part of the push for equality in the county.  

“They just told us what we were going to do, it wasn’t like asking,” she said. “’You’re going to go there and you’re going to do well and you’re going to show that, you know, we are as smart as all the students that are there.’” 

McGlone also believes that a military background made her parents bolder and more willing to take risks that other parents could not or would not, since they felt it was less likely they would lose their jobs.  

“You had an institution behind you that had already integrated, which was the military,” she said.   

On her first day at Lee, McGlone remembers the students around her sharing the giddiness and excitement she had once felt. 

But as the only Black student in her classroom, she felt isolated, singled out, and recalls a classmate immediately targeting her with a racial slur when she was assigned a seat next to him.  

“The teacher immediately jumped on it and said, ‘I will never hear that word again, it will never be spoken in this class and she’s going to sit where I tell her to sit,’” McGlone said. “So, 9-year-old Sharon goes and sits where she tells me to sit. Total quietness. There was no conversation in those early months.” 

That feeling of isolation dragged on for months, broken only by seeing her fellow Black students at lunch and on the bus. 

Eventually, she made one white friend, who offered to trade her peanut butter and banana sandwich for Sharon’s fried chicken.    

“I love peanut butter and banana sandwiches to this day,” McGlone said. “Because she stepped out. She continued to be my friend right up through high school.” 

Nearly 60 years later, McGlone recognizes there is still a long way to go toward true integration and equality in schools.  

“Integration happened because of the law, not because of the heart,” she said. “White people have to also realize, ‘What role do I play?’ … It has to be a choice and it has to be a concerted effort to be anti-racist, to be anti-segregation.” 

Last summer, McGlone spoke before the League of Women Voters. The video is posted below.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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