Louis Cousins: How a brave 15-year-old desegregated schools in Virginia in 1959

Stephen Nartey November 25, 2022
Louis Cousins/photo credit: J.T. McClenny, The Ledger-Star

Before 15-year-old Louis Cousins rose to national prominence as one of the Norfolk 17, he was among the 151 Black students who applied to access second-cycle education in all-white Maury High School in 1958.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) contested the decision by the schools in Norfolk to reject all 151 applicants in court. Interest in attending the white-based Norfolk schools however began dwindling as the court case dragged, which brought the number of applicants to 87 and finally 17, who became known as Norfolk 17, according to the Virginian Pilot.

There were others who found the tests and interview requirements as one designed to disqualify them so they decided to abandon the quest to pursue education at these schools, while the courts also rejected their right to education there.  

Cousins was one of the few students whose applications made it through and was just one of the five who were posted to schools where they were the only Black students there. They delayed attending Maury High School following a ban placed on all-white schools to prohibit Black students from enrolling in 1958. Cousins and the other Black students had the green light to begin their education on February 2, 1959.

But, the 29 steps Cousins took when he walked into the doors of Maury High School is what has become the iconic image of desegregating schools in Virginia. He had an unwelcoming reception when he got to the school with a crowd of white students staring at him in silence as his mother escorted him through the doors of Maury High School. Each moment was filmed by journalists till he went to take a seat in the school’s auditorium.

The picture of Cousins sitting all alone at the front of the room with his gaze set to the front was taken by J.T. McClenny. He wore an expressionless face and demeanor as the white students stared at him from the back of the auditorium with several rows of seats empty behind him.

It promised to be daunting but Cousins did not give up as classmates sidelined and ignored him, with others provoking him to a fight. He was spat at, with some children burning a cross in front of him on the school’s premises.

His son, Cousins Louis Jr, remarked in an interview that his father went through a lot but he persevered. Jeffrey Littlejohn, a history professor at Sam Houston State University who co-authored “Elusive Equality,” a book about Norfolk’s desegregation fight that features the photo of Cousins on its cover, said the image of Cousins became so imposing one could not ignore the message of what Black students had to endure while attending white schools in the face of racial inequality.

He said it must have been tough for one Black kid to sit in an environment that did not welcome him but he was unrelenting in the pursuit of his dreams. One of Cousins’ friends, Lula Sears Rogers, said what possibly kept him going was he saw the bigger picture of what his struggle will achieve for other children in years to come.

He said Cousins often said it is a wrong impression that is created when it is said he integrated white schools; he pointed out that, he desegregated those schools. The stark difference in those lines was staggering.

Cousins Jr. said he came to the realization of the enormity of what his father went through when they visited Norfolk for a commemorative event. He recounted that his father was treated like a celebrity.

Cousins died at the age of 76 when he suffered heart failure at the San Antonio hospital.

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