Professor Searches For 'Deeper Meaning' Behind City's History Of Segregation
Historians aspire to ignite interest today from the events of yesterday, professors aspire to entice students with structured education, and authors aspire to evoke emotion through the power of words.
Jeffrey Littlejohn, associate professor of history at Sam Houston State University, is a combination of all three.
He is the co-author of Elusive Equality: Desegregation and Resegregation in Norfolk's Public Schools, published this year by the University of Virginia Press. Littlejohn wrote the 320-page tome along with co-author Charles Ford, department chair and professor of history at Norfolk University.
"We were determined to write something that people want to read but that also has a deeper message," Littlejohn said. "I hope there are vignettes in our book that people will identify with and will think 'this is a great story.'"
The book focuses on three historical events that played out over the course of several decades in Norfolk, Va., as the African American community sought to equalize and integrate the city's schools.
It begins in 1939-1940 with a court case involving teacher salaries.
"Black teachers at black schools were being paid about two-thirds what white teachers were being paid," Littlejohn said. "They weren't asking for desegregation; they just wanted pay equality. It was a long, hard hill to climb, but ultimately, they won."
Next, in 1958-1959, Norfolk's school district agreed to integrate six schools. The governor of Virginia responded by closing all six schools.
"That meant almost 10,000 students didn't have a school to go to," Littlejohn said. "It was the largest closing in school history for the purpose of avoiding integration."
Eventually, the case went to court, the schools were forced to reopen, and integration was underway; however, more than a decade later, schools were still largely either all black or all white. In an attempt to eradicate this biracial system, the courts ordered mandatory crosstown busing.
"The city was providing transportation to whites and blacks equally," Littlejohn said. "Until, that is, a clique of very powerful people in the city, including the mayor, said they had to end crosstown busing because it was killing the city."
Littlejohn said it was, in a sense, because the result of crosstown busing was that more black students had access to Norfolk schools while white, upper-class students were leaving town. Suddenly, it seemed a biracial city was becoming predominantly black.
“When that happened, the city moved to end crosstown busing at the elementary level, and 10 all-black inner-city schools were created," Littlejohn said. "We call that resegregation. Ultimately, Norfolk became the first school district in the country to end busing for desegregation in 1986."
In the book, Littlejohn and Ford aim to connect the dots between these three events while pointing out their belief that despite efforts, equality in Norfolk schools has been very difficult to achieve. To this day, Littlejohn said, equality remains elusive, even if local leaders say otherwise.
"In 2005, Norfolk won the Broad Prize for Urban Education, naming the district the best in the country," Littlejohn said. "It was touted as this great district and everybody celebrated.
“Yet they've had three superintendents in the last five or six years, and there are overwhelming discrepancies between the predominantly white and predominantly African American schools in the number of Advanced Placement courses, teacher turnover, facility maintenance, test scores,” he said. “Yet these leaders want to pat themselves on the back and tell each other 'job well done.' In reality, that's not true. In reality, a lot of inequality remains."
Honing in on history
When Littlejohn arrived at Norfolk State University as an assistant professor in 2001, he knew he would be lecturing on the area's rich history of segregation and integration.
But writing an entire book about it was the furthest thing from his mind, until curiosity got the best of him and he began to delve deeper.
"Elements of those three court cases had already been told in various ways," Littlejohn said, "but there was still a larger story to be told."
Ford, the man who helped hire Littlejohn at Norfolk State University, got on board.
"We had an emphasis on African American history before it was even popular," said Ford of the historically black university. "But we wanted to give local stories a voice that would really enhance them."
As historian William Hesseltine once said, "writing intellectual history is like trying to nail jelly to the wall."
Indeed, it took Littlejohn and Ford four years to finish the book, a process that involved lengthy personal interviews, access to the archives of three major newspapers, delving through 54 boxes of various school newspapers, and sorting through stacks of school board minutes.
"It was exhaustive," Littlejohn said. "It was a huge learning process to familiarize myself with the individuals involved."
Even more so, perhaps, because Littlejohn is not from the area; and his four-year career at Norfolk State University was his first assistant professor posting.
Littlejohn is a native Texan, born to parents who, themselves, are educators. His father is chair of the philosophy department at Belmont University in Nashville, and his mother is a teacher.
"Teaching just seemed natural," Littlejohn said. "I knew since I was 10 or 11 that's what I wanted to do. Then, in high school, I had a teacher I really admired who made history come alive. He really inspired me to see history as not just political events, but also the human side of what went into these events."
Littlejohn went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in history from Belmont University, followed by a master's degree and doctorate from the University of Arkansas. He joined the faculty at Sam Houston State University in 2005.
In what could be considered a case of history repeating itself, Littlejohn is planning more trips back to Virginia as he and Ford embark on a second book—this time about lawyers who marched around town in togas, filed lawsuits involving restrooms, and sat half-naked on sofas in hotel lobbies during political conventions.
"These three guys were the most radical black attorneys in Virginia during the 1950s and ’60s," Littlejohn said. "We find them fascinating.
"There are a lot of people locally who do great things who are not heralded and whose names we might not know. All of these great stories have gone untold… and I want to be part of telling them."
To learn more about Littlejohn and his work, visit www.studythepast.com.
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