Retired Norfolk educator brings history to life for Virginia Beach students

Retired Norfolk educator Leo Williams will speak Friday to Virginia Beach eighth-graders who are reading Harper Lee's 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Williams, seen here in 2015, was invited by teacher Adrian Hayes last year, when he posed for this photograph with her daughter Tk. (Photo courtesy Adrian Hayes)
Retired Norfolk educator Leo Williams will speak Friday to Virginia Beach eighth-graders who are reading Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Williams was invited by Adrian Hayes, a teacher who also invited him last year, when he posed for this photograph with her daughter Ella. (Photo courtesy Adrian Hayes)

Adrian Hayes, an eighth-grade teacher at Brickell Academy for Advanced Academics and Arts in Virginia Beach, knows that “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a staple.

Every year, her students read the 1960 novel, for which Harper Lee won a Pulitzer Prize. Parents tell Hayes they remember reading it, too.

But Hayes, who also teaches “Beowulf” and “A Tale of Two Cities,” found a way last year to inject fresh relevance into Lee’s story about race and small-town Alabama.

On Friday, she is slated to do it again, bringing history to life for her students.

Her guest speaker, Leo Williams, is a retired educator who helped integrate Norfolk schools during the 1960s. Williams, 90, made such an impression a year ago – commanding rapt attention from an audience of 200 14-year-olds – she invited him back.

“He’s really great,” Hayes said. “It was just an incredible stroke of luck. He’s such a powerful speaker.”

He also has a wealth of experience.

Williams attended segregated Norfolk schools and graduated from Virginia State College in 1953, a year before the U.S. Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark school-desegregation decision. He went on to earn a master’s in education from the University of Virginia, while working as an educator in Norfolk.

In 1969, after he had worked as a principal and helped integrate several Norfolk schools, he became the first African-American principal of Oceanair Elementary School, which had been all-white.

He still remembers his first day.

When he arrived at the school, he saw signs and thought they had messages to welcome him. Instead, as he got closer, he realized the signs had just the opposite purpose: they used racist language and racial epithets, telling him to leave.

Protestors, who were white, were marching in front of the school, blocking the entrance, trying to prevent him from getting in. Eventually, a white woman helped him break through and speak to the crowd.

He told them who he was, and why he was there: to educate their children and work with them, but their children deserved better, he said, and he asked them to help him clean the school, which was dirty and infested with roaches.

“And lo and behold that happened,” he said.

Still, he has wondered what might have been if no one had intervened that day.

“Because the readings on those signs were not good at all,” he said. “They were awful.”

Williams, whose career in Norfolk Public Schools spanned almost 50 years, used his experiences to teach his own children.

“Life is what you make it,” said his daughter, Dr. Veleka Gatling, the executive director for the office of programs for exceptional children in Virginia Beach City Public Schools. “It’s how you respond to situations.”

It’s a principle that resonates today, in the era of social media, when children can be bombarded with potentially hurtful images.

“But you can’t use that to define you,” she said.



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Joan Quigley is a former Miami Herald business reporter, a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and an attorney. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post,, and Talking Points Memo. Her recent book, Just Another Southern Town: Mary Church Terrell and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Nation’s Capital, was shortlisted for the 2017 Mark Lynton History Prize. Her first book, The Day the Earth Caved In: An American Mining Tragedy, won the 2005 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award.