Hidden History: The Norfolk 17

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Norfolk, Va. (WAVY) — This February, we celebrate the 17 brave students who integrated Norfolk Public Schools.

It’s been 60 years since the group of black students joined white students in six schools.

One of the students, Dr. Patricia Turner, is keeping their legacy alive. Now 74, Turner spends her time telling students throughout Hampton Roads the story of their sacrifice and hard work. 

Ahead of her eighth grade year in 1958, she went through a tedious selection process which required standardized tests, a psychiatric evaluation and school board interviews for three days.

“We had to take three tests. I had to pass eighth grade, ninth grade and tenth grade tests,” Turner explained. “In those three days they asked all kinds of questions. What are you going to do if someone knocks you down the steps? I said, Get back up. What are you going to do it somebody spits in your face. I said wipe it off. What are you going to do when they call you out of your name? Don’t answer, that’s not my name.”

Gallery: The Norfolk 17 

Dr. Charles Ford, a Norfolk State University professor and author of author of Elusive Equality, Desegregation in Norfolk’s Public School explains the school entrance interviews weren’t fair.

“You look at the notes from the officials that interviewed the students the notes were just obviously blatantly racist,” said Ford. “To write anything like that about a student … it’s inconceivable today.”

Against the odds, Turner and her brother James Turner Jr. were selected by the school board to integrate select public schools. 

Later that same year, the Gov. J. Lindsay Almond shut down six white schools in Norfolk to keep African American students out in a movement called Massive Resistance.

“To this day, I don’t understand why Virginia would close their schools. Norfolk particularly putting out tens of thousands of white students. Black students were in school because their schools were not involved,” said Turner. “It makes no sense to me now.”

On Feb. 2nd, 1959, the schools reopened after the Virginia State Supreme Court and the Federal District Court ruled the closure unconstitutional. 

Video: Dr. Patricia Turner Speaks with Students

Turner said she remembers the first day of school. She said Norfolk police were called to protect them from angry mobs as they walked into Norview J. High School.

“They weren’t there to protect us they were there to keep the parents from hitting us with logs. But they could use little sticks. From hitting us with stones but they could use little pebbles. From hitting us with buckets but they could throw anything in the bucket but yet we went on,” said Turner.

Turner describes her school experience as lonely with constant bullying from white students and teachers.

“That year I was in the eight grade to middle school. I was knocked down the steps I was spit in the face. My papers were taken from me and torn apart but yet I didn’t miss any days. I kept going,” said Turner.

Eleven of the Norfolk 17 members are still alive, and Turner said she wants people to remember the group’s legacy. 

“We gave up our youth,” said Turner. “We didn’t go play. We had to study. We had to make sure that our grades were on track, because we were carrying you. We were carrying each and every one of you.”

Ford wants the fight for equality for students to live on.

“They should be apart of the curriculum of Virginia curriculum for high schools. That should be taught. Also the legacy of the 17 to the Civil Rights Movement. Traditionally, Norfolk is not in that story,” he explained.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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