Where we were, where we are

Published 9:14 pm Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Students at Creekside Elementary School got a rare historical treat on Tuesday. A visit from Delores Johnson Brown, one of the groundbreaking “Norfolk 17,” gave them a glimpse into a world that most of them have only known as dry stories in their history books.

When Brown and 16 other black students walked onto the campuses of public schools in Norfolk in 1959, they were breaking down barriers that had stood against black students for generations. As the first black students to be enrolled in Norfolk’s white schools, they were the vanguard of forced integration of Virginia’s previously segregated educational system.

They faced verbal and physical harassment, students and teachers who were opposed to their presence and the fear of violent retaliation for their desire to enjoy the same educational opportunities that the white students had already learned to take for granted.

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Despite their understandable fears, it was a beautiful first step away from the state’s ugly history of racial discrimination.

On Tuesday, students of all shades of pink and brown sat and listened intently to the stories Brown told them of those days so long before their birth, and they must have wondered if such things really could have happened.

Some had probably heard similar stories from their grandparents. Others may have seen television programs concentrating on the same period of time. None, however, would have had any direct experience that came close to matching the level of hatred that Brown and the other members of the Norfolk 17 faced in those first days of school integration.

Sadly, her story was all too true; her memories are real.

Brown told a reporter that it is important to share her story with new generations, so they can see just how far we have come as a society in nearly 50 years. “You have to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going,” she said. It’s a worthy sentiment.

But as teachers prepare lesson plans based on her talk, it will be important for them to emphasize not just where we were, but where we are today. That is the best way to ensure that black history remains relevant in post-racial America.