Wanted: Personal Memories of School Desegregation in Virginia

March 15, 2012

Historians are reaching out to gather the stories of people who lived through the desegregation of Virginia's public schools — people like Andrew Heidelberg, who was on the vanguard of integration, but also people who saw the struggle from a different perspective.

"Let's get the history as told by the people who lived the history," said Heidelberg, one of the 17 black students who enrolled in Norfolk's all-white public schools in 1959 after a court battle.

Heidelberg, now 68, appeared Wednesday with representatives of the AARP, civil rights groups and university historians to announce a project to collect and preserve the personal stories of Virginians who experienced the desegregation of the state's public schools. The project will gather oral histories, photos and other personal documents.

Sonia Yaco, co-chair of the Desegregation of Virginia Education project based at Old Dominion University, said court documents, newspaper stories and public records only tell part of the story. Now, the project seeks out those who lived during the turbulent period to fill in the rest.

"This isn't just a black story," said Yaco, ODU's special-collections librarian and archivist. The effort seeks to get the personal recollections of all people affected by desegregation, including those who had to be bused to different schools and those whose families moved to new school districts rather than attend integrated schools, she said.

"History has to present all sides," she said.

Heidelberg was among students shut out Virginia's public education system when Gov. J. Lindsay Almond shut down schools in Norfolk, Charlottesville and Warren County in 1958. After state and federal litigation reopened them in 1959, Heidelberg and 16 others — dubbed the "Norfolk 17" — entered city schools. He ended up attending Norfolk State University, then playing briefly for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He's now pursuing a master's degree at ODU.

He said his first three years at Norview High School were torture, as white students subjected him to physical threats and racial epithets. The school allowed him to play football his senior year, though, and he ended up becoming a star player.

He speaks to student groups across the state, and tries to convey the significance of the battle for integration. He still keeps in touch with several other Norfolk 17 members, and hopes they too will help today's students understand Virginia's history and its lasting impact on the state.

"Young people sometimes don't understand what went on," he said. "There's a disconnect, and how are they going to know unless you tell them?"

The DOVE project, which started a little more than four years ago, is a statewide collaboration among several universities, libraries and archives. The group, along with AARP, the Virginia NAACP and the Urban League of Hampton Roads, will hold several events called "Preserve, Learn and Empower" from April to June to gather personal accounts and artifacts from the 1940s to the 1980s. Locations include Hampton, Richmond, Farmville, Lynchburg, Alexandria and the Eastern Shore.

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