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NORFOLK — The city of Norfolk is segregated.

Across the city, there are dividing lines that starkly separate Black neighborhoods from white neighborhoods.

Some are obvious and visible to the naked eye, cutting across the face of the city like deep scars. A street. A fence. A river.

Others are more subtle, but no less effective at keeping Norfolk divided. College campuses. Industrial parks. School zones.

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The city was segregated by design along two main, inextricably-linked lines — housing and schools — and remains divided to this day.

In fact, it’s more separated by race now than in the Jim Crow era, the post-Reconstruction period when racist laws and unwritten rules were put in place to oppress and segregate Black people across the American South.

Norfolk didn’t start out segregated, nor did people naturally clump together by race. Decisions were made by powerful people and government entities that divided the city.

As Norfolk embarks on a mission to reshape a huge swath of itself in what it’s calling the St. Paul’s redevelopment, The Virginian-Pilot is exploring the ways the city is divided by race and class, how it got that way and, perhaps most importantly, what can be done to mend those divisions.

The first step is to clearly lay out the reality. Without a shared set of facts, it’s impossible for the community to truly reckon with its past — or begin to erase its dividing lines. Norfolk’s history is well documented, but often sits unexplored on library shelves or in academic research. We hope that sharing this history more broadly will lead to a more informed understanding of how our community might undo its divisions.

In addition to explaining how we got here, we’ll explore where the city is heading, including the efforts under way in St. Paul’s. Are they enough to spur integration the likes of which Norfolk hasn’t seen since the dawn of the 20th century?

Segregation, of course, has touched every corner of the country. And its effects have been thrown into particularly stark relief over the past year as protests over police brutality and treatment of Black and brown communities have roiled the nation. Those same communities also have borne the brunt of the economic and medical devastation of the coronavirus pandemic.

So why focus on Norfolk? Because of the massive overhaul it’s starting in St. Paul’s — and because the city has a long history as a test bed for segregationist policies and tools.

It was the site of the first federally funded public housing project in 1947. Public housing has played an outsized role in concentrating and segregating poor, Black Americans ever since. A decade later, Norfolk was the poster child for Massive Resistance, when state leaders closed the public schools in 1958 rather than comply with federal orders to integrate them.

Norfolk was the nation’s first city to be released from federally mandated busing meant to get kids from Black neighborhoods into white schools and vice versa. In 1986, this reversion to the “neighborhood schools” model left 10 of the city’s 35 schools with student bodies that were 90% or more Black. This was billed at the time as successful desegregation.

Now, Norfolk leaders proudly proclaim that the redevelopment of half of the city’s public housing will be a trailblazing effort to deconcentrate poverty and start to set right some of history’s wrongs.

This is not the standard newspaper series, which would publish a set of stories and wrap up within a few weeks or months.

This problem — the city’s racial segregation and the impact its on residents, neighborhoods, schools and future generations — is not something that will change overnight.

The Pilot plans to continue highlighting the problems and the possible solutions for as long as Norfolk remains segregated.

We also want this conversation to continue beyond the pages of the print newspaper and website. To do that, we’ll need your help.

Readers who want to share their experiences with racial segregation, or point out examples of it that the Pilot should be looking at, should send us messages and tips at tinyurl.com/dividinglinestip.

The Pilot will be hosting community discussions about the project and the issues in the coming months. The first is scheduled for Feb. 18.

When it’s safe to do so, we hope to host in-person gatherings to hear your thoughts.

We hope you’ll join us and add your voice to the conversation about race and division in our city.

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

Ryan Murphy, 757-739-8582, ryan.murphy@pilotonline.com

Sara Gregory, 757-469-7484, sara.gregory@pilotonline.com


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