William Frederick Duckworth was born on June 20, 1899, in Brevard, North Carolina, and was the son of Spann L. Duckworth, a fertilizer retailer, and Agnes Watson Duckworth. After graduating from high school in Kernersville, North Carolina, he attended Davidson College before serving in the army during World War I (1914–1918). Duckworth married Gertrude Parks Summers, of Statesville, North Carolina, on July 10, 1920. They had one daughter.
Fred Duckworth, as he was almost always known, worked for thirteen years in Ford Motor Company’s assembly plant in Charlotte, North Carolina, and became its manager in 1931. Two years later the company transferred him to its Memphis, Tennessee, factory and in 1936 appointed him manager of its Norfolk factory. During World War II (1939–1945), Duckworth became regional director of the War Production Board in Cleveland, Ohio. He returned to Norfolk in 1944 and purchased a Ford dealership, which he renamed the Cavalier Motor Company.
In June 1950 Duckworth won election to the Norfolk City Council, which then chose him as mayor. He served in that capacity until 1962. Dynamic, forceful, blunt, brusque, and stubborn, Duckworth often attracted controversy. He valued unity above all else, and the council made its decisions in closed sessions in the mayor’s office preceding its public meetings. On the one hand, Duckworth received praise for the urban renewal projects that were begun during his administration, including construction of a new civic center, attraction of new industry, expansion of the port, modernization of streets and highways, and construction of tunnels and bridges to connect Norfolk with neighboring communities. In 1956 he accepted the city’s First Citizen award. Four years later Look magazine and the National Municipal League announced that Norfolk was one of eleven recipients of the All-America City Award for 1959. Duckworth also persuaded General Douglas MacArthur, whose mother was a Norfolk native, to donate his personal papers and memorabilia to the city to be housed in a memorial created from the former courthouse.
On the other hand, both the style and the substance of Duckworth’s administration evoked bitter criticism, particularly from Norfolk’s large African American community. The only blacks in his administration were advisers to the recreation commission, and no black members of the police department achieved a rank higher than patrolman. Disagreements about land use, city services, police protection for blacks in a recently desegregated neighborhood, and school desegregation suits inflamed relations between African Americans and the mayor.Duckworth devised a novel strategy to avert court-ordered school desegregation in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education . His chosen instrument was the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which had completed a successful project of replacing dilapidated housing with federally funded public housing. To circumvent desegregation, Duckworth conceived a second urban redevelopment project that was ten times the size of the first and said to be twice as large as any redevelopment plan in any comparable city. In eighteen months the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority cleared more than 800 acres of land, demolished entire neighborhoods such as Atlantic City and Broad Creek Village, and destroyed the homes of 20,000 city residents. The targeted neighborhoods were becoming racially integrated and were prime candidates for school desegregation because many black children lived closer to white schools than to the elementary schools designated for black students. In fact, thirteen plaintiffs in the Norfolk school desegregation suit had resided in Atlantic City.
Attorneys for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) frustrated Duckworth by shifting their desegregation focus from elementary schools to the city’s secondary schools. In September 1958 the, acting under Virginia’s Massive Resistance laws, closed six white Norfolk junior high and high schools that courts had ordered to desegregate. The action deprived nearly 10,000 students of education. Duckworth arranged for a hastily called informational referendum on whether to petition the governor to return control of the closed schools to the city, which would then reopen them on an integrated basis using only local funds. The ballot stated that families with children in public schools would have to pay a substantial tuition to the city, and voters defeated the proposal. Duckworth attempted to end the crisis by intimidating the black plaintiffs into withdrawing their applications for transfer to the white schools. He proposed that the city council add a clause to Norfolk’s new budget to allow the council to change or cancel the unexpended portion of the schools’ funding whenever it wished. Having failed to intimidate the applicants, the council voted on January 13, 1959, to cut off funds for all schools above the sixth grade. This meant that 1,914 more white students and 5,259 more black students would be locked out of their schools.
The governor denounced the additional school closures, but the closures did not take place. On January 19, 1959, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and a federal district court both struck down the Massive Resistance statutes. United States district judge Walter Edward Hoffman ruled that the city council had overstepped its legitimate authority in deciding which schools or grades should be open. Prohibiting enforcement of the plan, he banned Norfolk from employing evasive schemes to defeat the will of the court.
Duckworth chose not to seek reelection to the city council in 1962. He subsequently served as president and general manager of the Tidewater Virginia Development Council, an organization seeking to attract new industry to the region; as president of the MacArthur Memorial Foundation; as vice chair of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel Commission; and as a member of the State Highway Commission. Duckworth was taking his regular evening walk on March 3, 1972, when an unknown assailant shot him six times and killed him. The murder was never solved. He was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery, in Norfolk.