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Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Lost Class of 1959 Prepares for Their Fiftieth Reunion

A reader has asked me to address the strange case of the lost class of 1959. In the true spirit of promoting racism at any cost, the political powers of the day chose to close schools wholesale. The idea of letting black students attend these schools was so repugnant to them that they preferred to sacrifice a whole senior class. This class will celebrate their fiftieth reunion this year in Norfolk,VA.

Old Dominion University Library prefers to call 1959 the fiftieth anniversary of desegregation of Norfolk public schools. Shall we celebrate or mourn? The Supreme Court may have found segregation unconstitutional in the famous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, but Norfolk had no intention of coming into compliance with the law of the land. In 1955 more than 200 black citizens petitioned the school board. The school board ignored the petition. The school board was sued in 1956 and subsequently ordered to integrate.

The school board accepted the decision but rejected all 151 black applicants to the public schools. On appeal the school board accepted seventeen students, admitting them on Sept 28, 1956. In a breathtaking display of education obstructionism, the aptly named Massive Resistance campaign, organized by the Byrd Machine sought to neutralize the Supreme Court decision with a set of delaying and obstructing laws passed in 1958. Even though the Civil War was long over, legislators cited States' Rights as the rational for the laws.

In an extreme and perhaps desperate act, in September 1958, Gov. J. Lindsay Almond, with the authority of the General Assembly, ordered all schools to be closed and removed from the public school system, displacing 10,000 students for five months. Churches and other organizations opened ad hoc schools in order to minimize the traumatic interruption of the education of so many students. Nevertheless, many students dropped out of school entirely. The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the school-closing law. The General Assembly responded by repealing the compulsory school attendance law. School were closed five months before the governor reopened them in February 1959.

Where is the lost class of 1959 now? Some landed on their feet. One (maybe more) is a dentist. Another went on on to medical school. Most of the women married, had kids, and now, grandkids. Most of the men got jobs and raised families. Some never recovered the lost opportunity. At least sixty have passed away. The lost class plans to get together, and in the words of their organizer, not to mourn, but to “rekindle old friendships.” They are looking for their lost classmates who may be scattered across America and even the world.

If you know any of these people, please contact the reunion organizer at the email listed in the link. Maybe these yearbook pictures will help you recognize members of the lost class who may be among your friends and acquaintances.

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