After a decade of crosstown busing that successfully integrated its schools, Virginia's port city is considering a plan that would resegregate many of its elementary schools.
Leaders of the white business and political establishment, as well as some blacks, say they must reduce busing soon or watch their school system lose its remaining white pupils, becoming what some Norfolk residents call "another Washington." They say the acceleration of white flight would result in mostly black schools, a poorer city--and a loss of white control.
"We all know there is a possibility of continuing on and reaching a point where your system is overwhelmingly black," says Mayor Vincent J. Thomas, who as school board chairman in 1971 reluctantly implemented a federal court busing order. "I think there are some who are concerned about that, even if it doesn't seem to be a priority among blacks."
Norfolk, the state's largest city until its bedroom suburb of Virginia Beach claimed that title last year, is one of the nation's first successfully integrated cities to propose a return to neighborhood schools and partial resegregation. Civil rights lawyers say they believe other cities will follow. The Senate has passed a measure that would sharply restrict busing for integration, and the Reagan administration has argued that school systems should not have to balance their schools racially to prove they do not discriminate.
If the Norfolk School Board decides later this spring to reduce busing next fall, the NAACP will almost certainly seek to reopen the 26-year-old federal desegregation case. The plan under consideration by the board would create six all-black elementary schools, while 13 of the system's 34 elementary schools would be at least 80 percent one race and 18 would be at least 70 percent one race. At present, with a 35 percent black population and a 60 percent black public school system, Norfolk has seven schools that are 70 to 80 percent one race.
Norfolk has always prided itself on being more racially advanced than much of the South, even though its schools were shut down for five months in 1958 rather than be desegregated. Now, whites and blacks appear to be heading for a fight that stems as much from a struggle for political control as from a search for quality education.
"The issue is not busing, the issue is race," says Henry L. Marsh III, the mayor of Richmond and the lawyer who represented the NAACP in Norfolk from 1963 until 1973. "They are trying to reinstitute segregation for their own advantage and for the advantage of trying to make Norfolk as white as possible."
"I've told Henry he ought to write a book called 'Busing for Fun and Profit,' " says Thomas, arguing that everyone will benefit if middle-class whites and blacks remain in and return to Norfolk. "He's probably the greatest beneficiary of busing that ever was, because he's the mayor of majority-black Richmond which has experienced considerable white flight and he's the lawyer for the NAACP."
Thomas, a businessman, sits in a City Hall office above what was once a bustling red-light district for Navy men on leave. From his 11th floor corner window, he can see the rusting gray Navy ships that continue to fuel his city's economy. He can see the glass-and-concrete skyscrapers of Norfolk's proud redevelopment, and he can see a few of the barracks-style projects--known in Norfolk as "parks"--that house thousands of poor blacks who were moved out to create the new downtown.
Those poorest blacks in the southern part of the city would find themselves in the most segregated elementary schools under the school board's plan, and some black leaders fear the all-black schools would never receive a fair share of resources. After all, they say, Norfolk gave them hand-me-down books, desks and buildings for decades--and then shut its public schools altogether rather than allow 12 black youths into all-white Maury High School.
"The reality of the situation is that in Norfolk black people are not fairly represented in places where major decisions are made," says Gwendolyn Jones Jackson, who attended the all-black Booker T. Washington High School in the 1960s and is now a lawyer in Norfolk. "So we can't allow 58 percent of our children to be resegregated and then operate on faith that the school board will make sure they get a quality education."
School Board Chairman Thomas G. Johnson Jr., a member of the prestigious law firm that unsuccessfully defended the city against the busing suit a decade ago, says parents of both races want their children close to home. The school board has proposed extracurricular activities--such as spelling bees and pen pals--to encourage interracial contact, and Johnson says there is no way the school board could deprive all-black schools as it did before desegregation.
"It is inconceivable to me that someone could close the schools rather than integrate--that shows how far we've come," Johnson says from his skyscraper office. "Norfolk is still a moderate city, and it's not the magnolia South by any means."
Norfolk's leaders point out that their city was the first to apply for federal redevelopment funds after World War II, and they have razed--and in some cases rebuilt--more than 1,000 acres since then. The effort helped maintain a tax base in what might have been a dying city, but it increased the pain of desegregation by isolating the displaced blacks in one corner of the city. School officials can trace a compact square on the map that holds 40 percent of Norfolk's black children and perhaps 100 whites.
Norfolk's elite also speak with satisfaction of the "coalition politics" that gave a voice to blacks, who make up 94,000 of Norfolk's 267,000 people, according to the 1980 census. For years, they say, the late state Del. William Robinson Sr.--a college professor known as "Dr. Bill"--brokered for the black community, ensuring that white politicians responded to black needs while limiting the number of blacks with whom white leaders had to deal.
"I think blacks hold the balance of power here," says Mayor Thomas.
But there has never been more than one black on the seven-member City Council or more than one black representative in what is now a five-member delegation to the General Assembly. "There are times I do have to stand alone, and on big issues I'm always the loser," says the Rev. Joseph N. Green Jr., the current black city councilman. "Coalition politics have not helped me or many folks . . . I think we accepted it because it was the only thing we could get."
Black leaders recently won a long and bitter redistricting fight for single-member legislative districts that will probably allow them to elect one more legislator. Council members are still elected citywide, making it difficult for the black minority to elect its candidates.
Given their differing views of Norfolk's power structure, it is not surprising that blacks and whites have different memories of 1958 and its aftermath. Blacks recall the entrance exams that only blacks had to take, the "free choice" and "neighborhoood school" programs that led to little integration during the 1960s and, when the courts finally mandated busing, the school board's attempt to charge $63 a year for children who had to ride the buses.
Whites remember that Virginia's governor, not the local school board, ordered the schools closed, and that a coalition of local businessmen fought to reopen the system. They recall that the massive busing began with 7,000 pupils leaving the school system, but that there was no violence. And they say they have managed successfully ever since.
They also point proudly to the 1975 court order that certified the school system to as free of discrimination, closing the case of Leola Pearl Beckett v. The School Board after 18 years and allowing court officials to ship 22 boxes of lawsuit documents to storage in Philadelphia.
Today, about 20,000 of Norfolk's 35,000 pupils are bused for purposes of integration, although many of them live so far from school they would have to ride buses in any case. The longest rides are about 14 miles, from Norfolk's northern white neighborhoods of Navy families and Carolina immigrants to the southern black districts along the Elizabeth River.
The wealthiest white children for the most part escaped long bus rides, and that has become a political issue in lower-income communities. School officials say the better-off neighborhoods just happened to be close to black areas that could be matched in neighborhood schools.
"Ten years ago we had a pressing reason to dismantle the structures of segregation," says school board member Jean Bruce. "I don't think that reason any longer exists." She says busing has brought new problems. Poor parents, for instance, have found it difficult to travel across town to PTA meetings and school events.
Many whites also have moved to Virginia Beach, although 85 percent of all pupils there also ride buses, or sent their children to Christian academies and private schools, which now teach about one-fourth, or 11,000, of Norfolk's pupils. The public schools, which were 60 percent white in 1967-68, are now 60 percent black.
"We maintained a racial balance," Bruce says. "But it is now coming precariously close to the point where we could not maintain a balance."
Johnson attributes much of the demographic change to middle-class distaste for busing. "The resistance is not racial, it's being bused into a lower socioeconomic class," Johnson says. "Middle-class people, black and white, would rather their children go into the same middle-class milieu."
Bruce says many black parents want neighborhood schools--one black parent claims to have collected 1,000 signatures supporting her plan--and Hortense R. Wells, one of two black members on the seven-member appointed school board, agrees.
"So long as there is no inference of discrimination and so long as every child is valued, I simply don't believe that the fact that every child in the class is one color or another is going to have a deleterious effect," Bruce says. "If that were true, we would throw up our hands in despair about New York and Washington and Atlanta."
Councilman Green rejects the notion that Norfolk's racial attitudes have changed dramatically since 1971. "What the present school board is doing is what the school board would have liked to do all along," says Green, adding that the city always has leased buses instead of buying them.
Green and others who share his view, including the second black school board member, argue that white flight began before busing and has little to do with it, except for an initial one-year spurt when busing began. Black pupils' standardized test scores also have risen since desegregation, they say, while white scores have not dropped.
"I believe in an integrated school system, and I do not think we can have an integrated school system without busing," Green says. "All the other methods have been tried and been found wanting. I really wish we had neighborhoods that would allow integrated neighborhood schools. But the years of segregation have not allowed that.
"I'm convinced if we went back to segregation, black children would suffer. It would start off all right, but after a while they would be the forgotten ones. That's our history."