NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – The artist behind the End of Massive Resistance public art piece honoring the Norfolk 17 called for people who will view it to think of the people behind the struggles.

A celebration and dedication of the art piece, meant to symbolize the breaking down of societal walls, took place Friday morning at Flatiron Park in downtown Norfolk.

Six all-white middle and high schools in Norfolk were ordered to close in September 1958 rather than integrate, which became known as the Massive Resistance. The schools did not open back up until Feb. 2, 1958 when 17 Black students joined White students to officially desegregate Norfolk’s schools.

The students, known as the Norfolk 17, went through hardships while ending the Massive Resistance. Many other students were also unable to complete their education due and that group became known as the “Lost Class of 1959.”

The public art dedicated to those students is an 8-foot-by-57-foot wall composed of brick and glass. The artwork explored the concept of breaking down barriers of segregated public education.

Both members of the Norfolk 17 and the Lost Class of 1959 attended the special dedication, along with Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander.

Lolita Portis was one of the Norfolk 17, entering the all-White Blair Junior High School at just 12-years-old.

She said she was scared to death to walk into the school doors every day.

“I was only 12 and I had parents and teachers and – no safe haven. I got punched and spit on, but I got my education,” she said.

Lolita’s sons said the trauma she went through back then stayed with her throughout her entire life.

“She won’t eat alone you know, because she was forced to do that, so yeah that’s one thing,” they said. She won’t eat if she had to eat alone.”

At the time, the kids weren’t allowed to eat, socialize or even play sports with the other white students in the schools.

The alienation made many, like Alveraze Gonsouland, leave after a time to attend Booker T. Washington High School.

“I also got a chance to fulfill something that I wanted to do and that was to play football,” he said. “I wanted to do that ever since I finished school at Radford.”

The commemorative sculpture is filled with opaque and transparent bricks.

Artist Norman Lee, one of the two people who created the artwork along with Shane Albritton, said that set up was strategic.

He said when people walk by the art piece, he wants them to ponder the people behind the struggles.

“That becomes as kind of an indication or a call to action because the work isn’t done,” Lee said. “Schools’ systems are not equal, not all students are given the same access to quality education and supplies.”

Want to see?

The End of Massive Resistance public art piece is located at 114 W. Charlotte St. in Norfolk, at Flatiron Park.