Norfolk 17 inspires a new generation

Published 10:05 pm Monday, February 28, 2011

Imagine being shunned in your school and in your community. Imagine your classmates spitting on you, throwing sticks and rocks at you, and calling you names on a daily basis, and you may in a small way understand the experience of Patricia Turner.

Dr. Patricia Turner visited King’s Fork High School Monday to share her experiences as part of the Norfolk 17.

Dr. Patricia Turner

“I’m still the same person that I was, but I don’t think I’m the same person I would have been,” Turner said.

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Turner was one of 17 black students selected in 1959 to attend white schools in Norfolk prior to integration. Turner and other Norfolk 17 students were subjected to academic testing, counseling and training for racial conflict and resistance they would encounter before they were permitted to enter the school.

The schools closed their doors for five months to resist the addition of the black students. When they reopened, Turner and the rest of the Norfolk 17 were met with massive resistance. Turner explained that she was verbally and physically abused throughout her career in the formerly all-white schools.

“Feb. 2, 1959, before Dr. Martin Luther King, the Norfolk 17 walked to their schools,” she said.

The NAACP picked up the older students and took them to school on that first day, but the younger students, like Turner and her younger brother, had to walk to school.

Turner’s mother told her to hold her brother’s hand. At first she resisted until she reached the crowds.

“As we walked up to the imaginary line, there were men on either side of the street all in black with rifles on their shoulders,” she said.

There were people yelling and spitting and throwing things at the children. Turner held her little brother’s hand until they got to the front door.

“I didn’t think about myself until I entered the building,” she said. “It’s hard going back to those times.”

Turner not only was mistreated by white students and teachers, but also by her black peers, who called her “white girl.”

“I have been abused. I have been cursed at. I have had some things done to me that I don’t ever want to remember,” she said to the King’s Fork audience.

Turner said people have often asked her why she didn’t fight back.

“I might have been able to knock the whatever out of one person,” she said. “There was no way I could have beat 400 people.”

Turner wasn’t permitted to use the restrooms or the water fountains at her junior high and high school. She wasn’t permitted to attend the prom. She was told that if she came to prom they would shut it down and change the location, but Turner stayed strong and focused on getting a good education and making a change.

“The times were totally different than they are today,” she said. “The struggle is still going on. The only difference is the struggle is for all of you. The struggle is your choice.”

“I come from an amazing time — a time of change, but so do you,” she said. “Whatever you do, be the best at it.”