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Norfolk’s white flight: The legacy of segregation

On February 2, 1959, 17 African-American students entered six previously all-white middle and high schools in Norfolk, ending de juro segregation in the city. (Photo from ODU Libraries digital collections)
On February 2, 1959, 17 African-American students entered six previously all-white middle and high schools in Norfolk, ending de juro segregation in the city. (Photo from ODU Libraries digital collections)

Read the first part of the history of white flight and school segregation in Norfolk here.

Crosstown busing - and the end of it - in Norfolk

It was April 1986 when the Norfolk school board huddled together inside City Hall and unanimously signed crosstown busing’s death certificate. 

The vote ended 15 years of school busing for racial balance throughout the city. It signaled a return to the style of neighborhood schooling that was heavily segregated in the 1950s and 60s.

All of this was a concentrated effort by Norfolk to prevent white flight from developing further in the surrounding cities.

In 1982, then-Mayor Vincent Thomas wanted to return to neighborhood schools. 

Thomas was school board chairman in 1971 and had reluctantly implemented the city’s federally mandated plan to dismantle de facto segregated schools. 

Charles Ford is a professor at Norfolk State University. He said it’s Thomas who pushed the anti-busing efforts.

“Vincent Thomas was really the one who galvanized the opposition,” Ford said. “Norfolk was one of the largest school districts before 1970, and by 1980, it was not.”

Norfolk used post-World War II federal redevelopment funds to raze and isolate most Black residents into one corner of the city.  Its “neighborhood schools' plan skirted segregation by law. Students weren’t assigned schools by race, but by neighborhood. 

But with a deeply entrenched pattern of racial housing policies, Norfolk was able to maintain segregated schools. 

Residual effects of residential segregation from the Duckworth administration’s redevelopment practices in the 1950s and early ’60s insulated children from a readily accessible integrated education.

Twenty-eight of 57 Norfolk elementary schools were still segregated in 1968, while minority populations accounted for less than 10% in another 22 schools.

Fifty of 57 elementary schools were at least 90% single race. 

Johnny Finn, a professor at Christopher Newport University. He said Norfolk specifically drew school zones around existing white neighborhoods to keep white students segregated from Black students.

“They drew a school zone right along the lines of existing neighborhood segregation,” he said. “When you draw the other other school zones around almost entirely Black neighborhoods, it should be no surprise that those schools are almost entirely African American.”

The NAACP’s Norfolk chapter and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice took issue with the city’s desegregation efforts.

They took it to court and won. The federal court's solution? Cross town busing.

Elementary students would be bussed across town to create a more integrated, unified elementary school system.

Ford noted this was another terrifying paradigm shift to the white majority.

“That would exacerbate the idea in their fantasy, in their mind, that ‘we're losing something,’” he said.

Middle and elementary school students were subject to hour-long bus rides. Parents, mostly white, were livid.  

Local historian Hap White said that was the beginning of a mass exodus out of the city.

Other factors were also luring middle and upper income residents out of Hampton Roads urban centers. The federal interstate system in the region was expanding, allowing easier access to workplaces like the shipyard and the downtown business district. 

New and affordable housing was readily available in outlying areas as new neighborhoods were developed. 

Ford said the perception of better schools and housing in those newly developed area was perpetuated by Realtors:

“The real estate people really scared people too saying, ‘The prices are lower and the home prices are going down.. so you might as well leave now too.’ Not only [is] your kid at stake, but also wealth. Ford said.

Norfolk lost 23% of its white population between 1970 and 1980. Meanwhile, Virginia Beach’s white population grew by 49%, Chesapeake’s by 20%. Suffolk exploded with a jump from 6,000 to 25,000 white residents.

Fearful of its dwindling population, Norfolk city leaders along with the school board began to dismantle its crosstown busing plan. Black parents filed suit in 1985. 

The federal court allowed the district to end busing for  Norfolk was among the first in the nation to halt a busing plan, citing white flight.

Cities like Oklahoma City, Los Angeles and Nashville would end or alter their busing plans in the following years and decades.

The legacy of white flight

Norfolk set a national precedent when it ended its crosstown busing plan for school desegregation in 1986. They cited a fleeing white home ownership base. 

Despite a return to neighborhood schools, the legacy of white flight from the city can still be seen today.

The 2020 U.S. Census shows the median household income of Black residents in the city is 48% less than white residents. Black median income is $47,001, while the white median income is $77,222.

Johnny Finn is a sociology professor at Christopher Newport University. He said that disparity is typical across the country, where the racial wealth gap reaches 90% on a national level.

“Which means that median white families can buy into much more expensive neighborhoods with property values that promise to continue to increase in value, thus continuing to increase the wealth of white families,” Finn said. 

“And non-white families, especially Black families that have been most directly impacted by this, simply don't have the wealth to even buy into those neighborhoods in the first place.”

That disparity in Norfolk can also be seen at a neighborhood scale. 

Delegate Jackie Glass said that vital public infrastructure like wide sidewalks and access ramps for wheelchairs are missing in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Food deserts also remain there.

“I remember walking in Ghent…knocking on doors with my daughter, and she said, ‘look … we can both fit on the sidewalk,’” Glass said. “And then we were walking past Harris Teeter. And she was like, ‘I really wish we had a grocery store that we could walk to.’”

St. Paul’s is Norfolk’s latest major redevelopment project. A piece of that includes improved housing and new, mixed-income housing. 

Rodney Jordan, the Norfolk School Board’s representative for the district that includes St. Paul’s, said that while improved housing is a positive, it doesn’t necessarily fix de facto school segregation.

“We still maintain our segregation … and the federal investment, to me, still leads to an inequity,” he said specifically of two wards that help organize the school board – superward seven and ward six

He added that lower standards have been unfairly normalized for families in public housing or low-income neighborhoods, including St. Paul’s

People in those neighborhoods are more likely to be in poverty, rent instead of own a home and have substandard insulation and cooling systems, all conditions that were made worse by redlining decades ago.

“Baked into what's acceptable is a continuance of one set of standards for one side of the street and another in a lower set of standards for the opposite side of the street,” Jordan said. 

Finn, who’s studied the impacts of redlining on the Peninsula, said people who live in a redlined neighborhood have lower life expectancies“In [downtown Norfolk], life expectancy is 85 years,” he said. “If you cross St. Paul's Boulevard to the east, into St. Paul's quadrant, life expectancy drops by 23-and-a-half years.”

Jordan noted that those neighborhoods have long been negatively impacted by a lack of investment.

“The fact of the matter is we are still, in my opinion, steering African American families and low income families to neighborhoods within ward seven,” he said. “And excluding “I think whether … consciously, or unconsciously, our housing practices and our policies today …are just a continuation of the policies that we've had in the past. We’re just kinder and gentler about it than we were before.”

Glass said that there still is a perception that cities in the region are race specific:

“There is a cultural divide. You typically see Chesapeake and Virginia Beach come across as more white, more affluent,” she said. 

“Norfolk, Portsmouth and Newport News are the same. They're cousins of each other because those are the Black cities.”

By the mid 1980s, Norfolk’s downtown retail district was in shambles with empty storefronts and people around Hampton Roads were warned not to go downtown after dark.

Norfolk State University professor Charles Ford said that despite a rebirth in areas once riddled with decay, like downtown Norfolk and East Ocean View, there still exists a distinct perception of urban areas.

“I think that was accentuated by the racial division to the people leaving the city, the inner city of the 1960s and 70s,” he said. “That inner city idea’s still there in people's minds in the suburbs because they never went back.”

Poverty was high in some neighborhoods and as a result — so was crime. The thoughtless demolition of thriving Black neighborhoods like Atlantic City worsened the problem. 

Norfolk’s Commonwealth Attorney Ramin Fatehi thinks there’s a direct link.

“All of that produced the segregation of communities,  -the concentration of poor people in communities, so the evidence is all there that that will ultimately lead to an increase in crime,” he said. “And only by undoing that concentration of poverty, we'll be able to change that basic dynamic.

The demographics in Norfolk are still shifting. 

The city’s white population fell 10% from 2010 to 2020. The Black population dropped 9%. Other minority populations, like Latino people, are starting to fill those deficits — those numbers are up 66%, to almost 40,000, in the last 10 years.

Connor Worley is a Missouri native who creates long-form content in coordination with WHRO’s newsroom and other departments. WHRV listeners will recognize Connor as an occasional on-air host. Connor earned his Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Print from the University of Missouri and a master's degree in Journalism and Audio at the Cronkite School of Arizona State. Connor enjoys the great outdoors, technology, and music. He lives in Virginia Beach.

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