By Harry Minium

The 17 people who integrated Norfolk schools as teenagers, better known as the Norfolk 17, were honored with the Hugo Owens Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award on Thursday night during the 36th annual Old Dominion University celebration of King's life and legacy.

The celebration, held virtually because of the pandemic, was witnessed by about 220 people via Zoom.

Huge Owens Jr., the son of former civil rights leader Hugo Owens Sr., presented the award to Patricia Turner, one of the Norfolk 17.

On Feb. 2, 1959, the 17 students walked into Norview and Granby high schools and Norview, Blair and Northside junior high schools. All lived close to the white schools but had been forced to attend all-Black schools miles away.

Norfolk's schools were desegregated by a federal court order that was unpopular among most white residents.

Although police were at the schools to stop major violence, they did not protect the students from being jostled and spat upon.

Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander, an ODU graduate and the city's first Black mayor, paid tribute to them as the event's featured speaker. He noted that many were beaten, pushed down stairways and had their school papers stolen and ripped apart.

"They did not arrive at schools that welcomed them," he said. "Their teachers didn't nurture their talents and their fellow students bullied them. The Norfolk 17 described their experience as pure hell, but they persisted and eventually graduated."

"They faced continuous threats of physical violence, verbal abuse and destruction of their property," Owens added. "In spite of the enormous pressure placed on these youths, they remained steadfast in their conviction that they deserved an equal education."

He then read the names of all 17, many of whom have died.

Turner and the late Andy Heidelberg, who became a football star at Norview, wrote books about their experiences. The Public Broadcasting Service produced an hour-long documentary on their struggles that included video from the time.

Turner accepted the award emotionally and urged Americans to come together in this age of political and racial strife.

"I feel so much joy and happiness," she said. "We were walking to school. That's all we wanted to do.

"And now, thank God, we can look back and say, thank God again for carrying for us, for holding us, for just leaving us here so that we could see the changes that we made.

"Please don't look at the world in a negative way. Even though we have so much going on today and this virus has taken a toll of everyone, there are still wonderful things going on in the world."

ODU President John R. Broderick quoted King, who was assassinated in 1968.

"Rev. King said the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience," he said. "It is where he stands in times of challenge and controversy."

President Broderick is retiring this summer after 13 years as ODU's president. He has been honored by the Urban League and many other groups for his commitment to educating African Americans and fighting racism.

Under his leadership, ODU built a $20 million student success center that provides counseling, tutoring, mentoring and other services for students from nontraditional backgrounds, including many from families who have no college graduates.

During President Broderick's tenure, ODU's Black student population has grown into the largest among Virginia schools, and the University is among the nation's best for African American graduation rates.

President Broderick was among those leading a March for Justice last year at ODU following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. He also helped lead the effort to name ODU's newest residence hall for Hugo Owens Sr.

President Broderick said the theme of Thursday's celebration was, "A Legacy Honored, A Future of Change."

"I'm proud to say," he added, "ODU is leading the way among higher education institutions in the fight for social justice and equality."

Owens sued to open Portsmouth's parks to all races in 1950. A dentist, he joined a fight to integrate Portsmouth General Hospital in 1964, and in 1970 became one of the first Black members to be elected to the Chesapeake City Council.

He joined ODU's Board of Visitors in 1990 and was the board's first Black rector in 1992. Hugo Owens Hall, which can hold 470 students, is now open and will be dedicated in April.

Owens' lifelong history of fighting for racial justice has been documented in words and photographs on the walls of Owens Hall. But Miles Nixon, ODU's Student Government Association director of legislative affairs and diversity, ended the ceremony by announcing that an iconic photo of the Norfolk 17 will also be prominently displayed at Owens Hall.

"Without your bravery and perseverance at a time when our country was far less racially tolerant, I would not be in the position I am in today," Nixon said. "There are no words to express the gratitude I have toward you all for laying the foundation and uplifting young African American students like me."

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