Keeping Their Legacy Alive: Scholarship Honors Brave Students of the Norfolk 17

In 1959, seventeen children in Norfolk paved the way for future generations to obtain a good education.

In 2020, two generous donors created a scholarship fund to ensure that legacy continues.

Sandra and Lemuel Lewis, through a generous gift, established the Lewis Family Norfolk 17 Scholarship Fund at the at the Hampton Roads Community Foundation. It honors the brave students who desegregated city public schools amidst fierce opposition.

“Having the scholarship with that name, it keeps the memory alive. Somebody has to say, ‘well why do they call them the Norfolk 17?’” Sandra said. “The men and women – or at that time the girls and boys – who suffered the insults, the threats, the hostility that they did to achieve integration, that should never be forgotten. History is important.”

Sandra knows firsthand the power of young people to change the course of history. After all, she did it herself.

At 10 years old, Sandra became one of 12 students to desegregate Charlottesville public schools when she walked through the doors of Venable Elementary in 1959. She went on to become one of the first African American women to graduate from the University of Virginia’s College of Arts & Sciences in 1972.

The couple attends the historic First Baptist Church in Norfolk, which in the 1950s opened its doors to tutor the 17 Norfolk students who – along with others across the state – were shut out of public schools when the governor chose to close rather than integrate them.

Churches were not immune to racial violence during the Civil Rights Movement, including bombings by racist groups in the deep South, Lem Lewis pointed out.

“That, to me, is what history is – not only what the Norfolk 17 did but what that church did when it stepped in. The church took some risk in doing that as well,” he said. “The whole Civil Rights Movement was just a critical period of time. Many people made sacrifices for the future – for the future of the community and for the future of the country.”

Rev. Robert G. Murray (left), is pastor of First Baptist Church, which educated students like Dr. Patricia Turner (center) when schools closed during a period called Massive Resistance. Sandra Lewis (right), along with her husband Lemuel Lewis (not pictured) started a scholarship in honor of the Norfolk 17.

Lem said progress is possible when everyone works together to fight injustices. Lem, who attended segregated schools in Lynchburg before enrolling as one of the few Black students at UVA in the 1960s, said the couple is paying forward the scholarships that helped them achieve educational success.

“Without them, I would never have been able to attend college,” said Lem, who serves on the community foundation board of directors. “We both very much appreciate and benefited from getting a good education. We know of no better way to give back than through scholarships.”

Their first local scholarship was awarded in 2021, and it will forever help others achieve a college education.

“We like the concept that this will continue the fundamental goal of the Norfolk 17, which is to help people get a good education,” Sandra said. “Because of the perpetual nature of having the fund with the Hampton Roads Community Foundation, it will last a long time.”

“And not only last but grow, and grow in perpetuity,” Lem added.

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