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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Norman Pollock, History Professor and Civil Rights Advocate On and Off Campus, Dies at 88

By Amber Kennedy

Norman Pollock is remembered as a champion of diversity during the tumultuous late '60s and early '70s, both on and off the Old Dominion University campus.

The longtime history professor, who taught at Old Dominion University from 1964 to 1998, died in October in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was 88.

Pollock was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University when he came to ODU, then a "relatively new institution" that seemed to have "boundless potential," he said in a 1999 oral history interview. He became chair of the history department in 1975. After three decades of teaching with a focus on English and Irish history, he was granted "Emeritus" status in April 1998 by the Board of Visitors.

"He was always a great teacher; he had a reputation for that," said Peter Stewart, a professor of history who shared an office with Pollock in their earliest days on campus, from 1964 to 1970.

He taught his students discipline. Those who arrived late to class encountered a locked door, smokers were scolded for lighting cigarettes in elevators and good grades were hard-earned.

"Norman did not hand out grades at a high level," Stewart said. "If you got a B minus, you were probably doing pretty well. He was a tough teacher, but a good one."

When Pollock arrived at ODU, the school had few Black students. During his first year, they organized the Human Relations Council, an organization for "forward-looking people" that provided "a way of feeling more attached to the university." He served as faculty sponsor for the organization in the mid-1960s.

Before he'd arrived on campus, Pollock had participated in the 1963 March on Washington, an experience he recounted during a Tidewater Community College panel on the 25th anniversary of the event. "It touched the conscience of many of us fence-sitting liberals and caused us to get down off the fence on the side of action," he said at the discussion, according to an article in The Virginian-Pilot. "The time had come for change."

As young professors, Pollock recruited Stewart to join public demonstrations for civil rights. Around the first anniversary of the murder of Medgar Evers in 1964, Pollock, Stewart and colleagues from Norfolk State University gathered for a small protest in front of the then-post office (now Federal Building) on Granby Street.

Their demonstration didn't capture much attention, but they were just warming up. In February 1965, Pollock asked Stewart to march again, this time supporting students who were fighting to integrate the downtown YMCA. After a court battle, the YMCA was desegregated that spring.

"He was pretty set on getting something achieved," Stewart said. "Norman had strong views of right and wrong, and people listened to him."

At the same time, Pollock promoted integration in his neighborhood of Colonial Place and neighboring Riverview. When white families began to leave as Black families moved in, Pollock rallied the joint civic league to create a welcoming community. The civic league recruited the FBI to stop realtors from using scare tactics to convince white families to sell, according to a 1978 article in The Virginian-Pilot.

He was considered by many to be the "unofficial mayor of Colonial Place," said Stewart, who noted Pollock also successfully advocated for traffic changes to curtail speeding and rush-hour traffic in the neighborhood.

"I wanted to see if we could establish a stable, integrated neighborhood," Pollock told the newspaper. "I figured that in the future this is how American society will have to live."

In 2015, his actions were remembered by residents Arlette Claflin and Pat Spriggs '87 in a pamphlet: "Even as many of his neighbors fled to Virginia Beach, Norman began a one-man campaign to recruit colleagues, touting big houses, modest prices and convenience to campus."

He created a committee devoted to persuading neighbors to "accept change," he said. "We blazed a trail toward the future. It worked."

Over time, Pollock applied his historian's expertise to chronicling his neighborhood. He was one of four co-authors of "The Evolution of an Urban Neighborhood: Colonial Place, Norfolk, Virginia," published by the University of Virginia's Institute of Government. As recently as 2020, he contributed a history of the neighborhoods for their civic league newsletter.

"His work chronicling neighborhood history remains important so we learn lessons from the past and apply them to creating our future," said Colonial Place resident Sue VanHecke.

In his foreword for "Colonial Place and Riverview: One Hundred Years of History," published in 2006, he noted the neighbors managed to preserve a type of neighborhood - walkable, diverse, filled with charming older homes - that otherwise often fell victim to blight and decline.

Colonial Place and Riverview, he wrote, "offer a fresh take on community, a place where one can find a real sense of belonging, a place to live happily in an atmosphere of economic and racial diversity - what America really is in 2006."

"I think it's important to recognize what a trailblazer Norm Pollock was in terms of not allowing our neighborhood to succumb to racially driven, narrow-minded ideals," said Artemis Stoll, one of the co-authors of the history book. "He and his fellow Stabilization Committee members had a vision for Colonial Place and Riverview to move forward positively, embracing inclusion and diversity."

Pollock was predeceased by his wife, Ethel, and is survived by two sons.


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