Sixty years ago this week, the United States Supreme Court handed down the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” setting the stage for the desegregation of all of America’s public schools. But integration didn’t happen overnight. In fact, in many places around the country, it took years.
The most often cited and arguably the most memorable integration battle took place in 1957, in Arkansas, when the Little Rock Nine entered high school — after President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and, incredibly, sent in troops from the storied 101st Airborne to ensure the teens’ safety. But the drama and tension so evident in Little Rock also played out — albeit with less firepower on hand — in schools around the country for years after Brown v. Board of Education.
Here, on the 60th anniversary of the decision that forever reshaped the country’s educational landscape, LIFE.com remembers one of those post-Little Rock battles: the integration of high schools in Virginia five long years after the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling. In February 1959, the state’s governor, J. Lindsay Almond, reluctantly abandoned his carefully choreographed “massive resistance” to integration — including the closing of schools and keeping thousands of kids out of class in an attempt to forestall desegregation. Shortly thereafter, 21 African-American students began attending classes in Norfolk and Arlington. LIFE photographers Paul Schutzer and Ed Clark were there, in Norfolk, when 17 of those students made history.
LIFE’s coverage of the integration of the Norfolk schools painted a relatively rosy picture of what the magazine called the “calm and hopeful integration start” in Virginia.
“The peaceful transition,” LIFE wrote in its Feb. 16, 1959, issue, “went a long way to restore the climate of inevitability of integration in the South, which had been badly disturbed a year and half ago by violence and diehard defiance in Little Rock.” (That same issue of LIFE, unfortunately, also repeatedly misidentified one of the Norfolk students, 15-year-old Louis Cousins, as “Lewis” Cousins.)
Despite LIFE’s optimistic characterization of the “peaceful transition,” it’s worth noting that many of the students later recalled their experiences as hurtful, isolating and confusing, even if they kept up a brave front for the cameras — and, perhaps more importantly, for their white peers.
Six decades later, their courage still astounds.
— Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com