Norfolk 17 student speaks at Creekside

Published 9:23 pm Tuesday, February 24, 2009

In the Creekside Elementary School auditorium, black boys and white girls sat side by side for a special assembly on Tuesday morning.

In one line, a couple of black girls laughed with their white friends as they waited for their seats.

Black teachers walked students of all colors and ethnicities through the halls.


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It was a scene of utter normalcy in today’s school systems. But on Tuesday, the picture took on special significance.

Delores Johnson Brown spoke to the kindergarten, first-, second- and third-grade students Tuesday morning.

Brown was one of the Norfolk 17, the first 17 black students to integrate Norfolk schools in 1959.

Brown and her black peers were subjected to unfair testing, racial slurs, threats, physical attacks and other intimidation tactics just to attend the same school as white students.

After speaking to the students at Creekside, Brown shared a story about the ride home after her first day at school. The NAACP had arranged for her and her fellow black students to have a car and driver to take them to and from school.

After getting into the car, she noticed her driver took a long time getting her home. In fact, he kept driving in a circular route that kept passing her street. They had been driving for almost an hour — the sun was beginning to set in the sky — when Brown finally asked the driver why they weren’t home yet.

The driver told to her not to be scared, but there was a car behind them with six muscular white men who had been following them since they were at the school.

“He told me, ‘I’m not dropping you off until we lose them. They’re not going to know where you live,’” Brown said. “That was very frightening, and what really worried me was that they would be there every day.”

Brown said today’s youth simply find it hard to comprehend what those days were like.

“They look at you like you’re crazy,” Brown said. “It seems unbelievable to them. They can’t imagine it. I’m here to educate these students so they are aware of the fact that someone paved the way for them. It’s not always been this way. You have to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going.”

Brown spoke to the children about her fight for an equal education and the importance of getting an education today.

“It’s so fulfilling for me to come out and talk to the boys and girls,” Brown said. “I really look at it as a ministry. I don’t want to stop sharing with the boys and girls.”

Brown also credits the tight bonds with her 16 peers in getting her through the rough times.

“We’re like a big family,” she said.

Claudia Lawson, an intern in the guidance department, invited Brown to Creekside. As part of her internship, Lawson had to set up an event for black history month. Lawson read online articles about the Norfolk 17 and contacted Brown directly to see if she would be interested in coming.

Lawson said she was amazed at how captivated the children were by Brown’s story.

“They were very receptive,” she said. “Their mouths were open. Their ears were open. They weren’t what you expect from K through third graders.”

Brown said it is therapeutic to talk to the young people about her story. She said after years of trying to hide her story, she has found peace with telling it.

“I kept wanting to push it down deep and forget it, and hope it would just evaporate from me,” Brown said. “It’s not going to evaporate. You have got to get it out of your system or else it’s going to nag you. Telling people your story and letting them learn from it, that is turning that negative into a positive.”