VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — The story of the Norfolk 17, the children who integrated Norfolk Public Schools in 1959 after the landmark Brown versus Board of Education Supreme Court ruling is well-known across the Hampton Roads region and across the country. But the story of what happened in neighboring Virginia Beach, then called Princess Anne County, is a story that many history books have omitted.
The fearless 38, as they are called, are the children who integrated two public schools in the county in September 1962. Patricia Pickett, who integrated Woodstock Elementary School as a third grader, learned early in life about suspected Ku Klux Klan criminal activity at her Centerville home.
“We had a cross burned on our yard so I knew there were people out there who didn’t care,” said Pickett in an interview at Mount Bethel Baptist Church off Indian River Road in Virginia Beach.
Careless is how Princess Anne County treated Black children. Everything: the buses, buildings and books were falling apart.
“Missing pages covers gone … the desks were often broken and in disrepair,” Pickett said. “When I went to Woodstock Elementary, the difference was stark.”
Three local deacons challenged the School Board and in 1962, 38 children integrated Woodstock Elementary School and Kempsville Junior High School . The road to equality was treacherous.
Earnestine Hodnett: Each morning, I was faced with dogs being set up after me.
Regina Mobley: How were you treated once you were in the building?
Earnestine Hodnett: Just as bad on the bus once I got to the building. [Hodnett describes a cruel joke that was routinely delivered on the way to school] ‘Who will sit with the N girl? I’ll give you a quarter.’
Theordore Wilder offered an unvarnished assessment of how he was treated during he desegregation era.
“The six years that I was in integrated schools to me, it was the worst six years of my life,” Wilder said.
Thorngton Russell described in detail how he was attacked by classmates while playing soccer.
“I was trying to fight then off,” Russell said. “I couldn’t fight those big boys and I ran to the sideline and my teacher was standing right there with her arms folded and they ran back laughing. She came to me and said, ‘Thorngton, you must participate,’ and I said, ‘I’m not going back out there.’ I said, ‘you saw the guys beating on me.’ So instead of [her] sending them to the principal’s office, she sent me to the principal’s office.
There was physical pain and emotional pain, Russell said.
“The teacher walked around the room helping the other kids, patting them on the back sitting and talking, and she walked right by me not asking if I needed help or anything,” Russell said.
Those who were ignored, taunted, and teased will be celebrated Saturday afternoon at Mount Bethel Baptist Church at 4636 Indian River Road. Twenty-eight of the 38 — four are now deceased — are expected to be on hand to share the stories that have been largely ignored.
“The history need not be hidden; history needs to be taught. So many of our children today don’t know the history they don’t know what we went through. They don’t see it or read about it in textbooks because they don’t want to print it in textbooks.