Local News

Norfolk 17 Member Shares Meaningful Experience

Alvareze Gonsouland (far right) poses with Special Education teacher Ms. Janna Freishtat and his son, English teacher Mr. Keith Gonsouland, after speaking to their ninth grade English class.

Mt. Hebron had the honor of opening their doors to Alvareze Gonsouland on April 9. For many students, the name may sound familiar. Alvareze, father of English teacher Mr. Keith Gonsouland, was one of the historical “Norfolk 17.”

Because racial injustice is prevalent today, Mr. Gonsouland thought it would be beneficial to incorporate his father into the current ninth grade curriculum. His class, which he teaches with Special Education teacher Ms. Janna Freishtat, is currently reading To Kill A Mockingbird. The novel deals with racial injustice as a white man is defending a black man accused of rape.

Mr. Gonsouland noted, “I thought it was a good time to give the kids a real life example that there are people still living who went through racial injustice and have [the kids] see that it’s still alive.”

In 1959, five years after the Supreme Court finished their ruling on the monumental Brown vs. Board of Education case that outlawed school segregation, all-white city schools began admitting members of the African-American community.

In Norfolk, Virginia, changes were not implemented quite as quickly as in other states. Despite the Plessy vs. Ferguson case that mandated “separate but equal” provision of private services, things were anything but equal.

Alvareze remembers being given hand-me-down textbooks that had words and drawings scribbled in them. Many students had ultimately had enough. One hundred and fifty black students applied to attend the all-white schools, but after testing and tough interviews, only 17 were taken. One of the 17 was Alvareze Gonsouland.

Before attending Norview High School, Alvareze noted how he and other black students were taught regular classes at a Baptist church nearby from lawyers and other kind civilians who did not mind lending a hand while they were out of school.

Entering the first day of school, Alvareze remembers being nervous walking through the hallways while mean and hurtful words were thrown at him and his peers. Alvareze did add that not every white student yelled slurs at him.

Although there were students who were not racist, overall things remained unequal. Alvareze loved playing football and baseball, but when he attended Norview, he was not allowed to play because he was black.

In the classroom, he received split treatments. He received support from some, but some said, “Maybe you should be a carpenter or a plumber,” Alvareze added. Even counselors told him this, which came off as demeaning to him and the others.

Since he was part of a story that was garnering worldwide attention, Alvareze recalled receiving multiple letters from people all around the world who wanted to give him and the other 16 students some words of encouragement. But after attending Norview for nearly a year, Alvareze decided to transfer to another high school.

Alvareze did want it to be known that Norfolk, Virginia was not all bad. Norfolk was home to delicious food and rhythmic blues. The melodies, he recalled, were “damn good music.”

Following his 50th reunion to Norview High School, Alvareze explained how he was approached by a white man who he had not particularly recognized. This man was a classmate of his and wanted to apologize face-to-face for the cruel things he remembered saying to Alvareze.

When asked by a student in his son’s class what he would have done differently, Alvareze replied, “I could have been less angry. I would have planned more and saw what happened.”

Mr. Gonsouland noted how his father’s distinguished past was not something they particularly talked about until about five years ago. “I knew of it, but my dad was just my dad. My dad was part of the ‘Norfolk 17.'”

Alvareze stressed to the class of ninth graders, “Think more about your future and what you want to happen. Think more about yourself and how you can evolve.” His speech was powerful and enlightening, resonating especially in light of the U.S.’s current struggles with racial problems.

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