Desegregation in Portsmouth, Virginia

This is the third of our three-part celebration for Black History Month 2022, focusing on elements of African American history within the Daughters of Charity archives collection.  The first part, on the Briscoe family of Emmitsburg, can be found here.  The second part on the St. Euphemia’s School Collection (Emmitsburg, MD) can be found here.

Public schools in the Commonwealth of Virginia were segregated from their creation in 1870.  The Catholic schools held the same policy.

The Daughters of Charity operated three schools in Portsmouth, Virginia in the Hampton Roads area:  St. Paul’s High School, St. Paul’s Elementary School, and Our Lady of Victory School.  On September 8, 1959, this system of segregation, at least in the Catholic schools, came to an end in Portsmouth.

Chapel at Our Lady of Victory School

Twenty new students sat for the entrance examination to St. Paul’s that year.  The examinations were graded anonymously, and those qualifying were admitted, with no regard to race.  Four African American students became the first students to attend a desegregated school in Portsmouth:  Sabine Gordon, Samson Clark, Edward LeBoeuf, and Richard King.

By almost all accounts, the integration of the schools went more smoothly than many in the Commonwealth, which took place after Brown v. Board and in the wake of “Massive Resistance.”  Virginia Klisiewicz, a former Daughter who taught at the school, attested in 2004: 

Apparently, the white children were, sort of, geared to acceptance, and the black children were geared to acceptance.  There wasn’t animosity on either side.  So, the first day of school, our kids went there – they just went to their classrooms – they would, you know, they were certainly oriented, and the white kids, they were happy with it.  I mean, that’s too idealistic, I suppose, and it seems strange that this would’ve worked out the way it did considering the feeling in the South; but it, was a smooth transition.

The high school at Our Lady of Victory closed in 1960.  The elementary school closed four years later.  In this same year, St. Paul’s was rechristened Portsmouth Catholic High School to reflect the consolidation of schools in the area.  An active alumni association for Our Lady of Victory School still holds reunions, and even kept in touch with their Daughter of Charity teachers through the rest of their lives.

In 1970, the Portsmouth Catholic School board reaffirmed its decisions and stood in the face of the “Massive Resistance” and the push by parents opposed to desegregation to send their children to Catholic schools to avoid integration.  In response, the school board announced that “As Christians, we refuse to allow our schools to become  a refuge for those who would flee integrated public schools.”  Father Thomas Caroluzza, board chair, said to the press “I don’t want to accuse people of using our schools as a refuge, but at this point in history, I think we should make things clear to all those interested in private, integrated education so we don’t play games.”

While many alumni have continued to speak highly of their education at Our Lady of Victory, almost certainly better than the segregated public schools offered by the Commonwealth, there is no ambiguity that the doctrine of “separate but equal” would never be true.  It is only through a charism of “service to all” – without distinction – that we can see everybody achieve. 

1 Comment

Filed under African American History, Our Lady of Victory School, Portsmouth, VA

One response to “Desegregation in Portsmouth, Virginia

  1. Kat G

    The whole series has been very illuminating. Thank you.

    Sent from my iPhone



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