Early years remain a mystery
We know next to nothing about Norris’s life before he appeared, fully grown, in the midst of the Memphis political scene. All three census records in which he appears say he was born in Tennessee, as was his father, but no records show whether either was born slave or free. In the 1900 census Norris said his mother was born in Virginia, but in 1910 and 1920 he said she came from Maryland – either location would suggest that she was probably a slave. Present-day Norris descendants were told that Isham Norris was Cherokee rather than black, but census records always identified him as black or mulatto. Even in Oklahoma newspapers, where writers would be likely to take note of a Cherokee connection, he was always referred to as “colored” or “Afro-American.” Anecdotal evidence from Memphis resident Alabama A. Howard suggests that Norris’s family home was in Fayetteville (Church and Walter, 67).
The 1900 census, the first in which Isham Norris is mentioned, lists October 1851 as his birth date. Calculations based on the detailed age information provided in his death certificate (which lists 1854 as his birth year) indicate that his birth date may in fact have been October 15, 1853. The same document names his father as Daniel Norris. There is a Dan Norris listed in the 1880 and 1900 census records. Born in Alabama in 1825, he was living in Haywood County, Tennessee, with his wife, Pleasant.
Anyone attempting to follow the complex trail of documents regarding Isham F. Norris will face a labyrinthine quest. Not only did Norris move his family to several unexpected locations, but he also used two different first names: Isham and Isaac. He himself tended to use the name Isham on such personal documents as census surveys and his children’s birth records; most Tennessee General Assembly accounts called him Isaac; Memphis city directories were more arbitrary in their choices, using both names in an unsystematic manner. His present-day descendants have always known him as Isaac.
Norris’s first appearances in Memphis city directories came in the 1870s, when he was listed as a porter (1874, 1876) and a laborer (1878, 1882); none of the directories mentioned that he was elected to the General Assembly during the 1881-1882 term. For the next several years (1883-1892) he was listed as a grocer and dealer of wood and coal, along with a variety of partners. First J. (John) Harris joined him in the wood business. In 1885 he opened a grocery store, where he also sold medicine, at the corner of Calhoun and Hernando streets. A year later he became a partner in a grocery business at 155 Beale Street with Thomas J. Turner (a teacher at the Winchester School), and the Rev. Mr. Taylor Nightingale (pastor of the First Baptist Church, 155 Beale Street, and part owner of the Memphis Free Speech newspaper, which would soon hire Ida B. Wells as a writer and editor). In 1887 he bought a half-page ad in the Memphis City Directory for “I. F. Norris, Dealer in Staple and Fancy Groceries at 141 Beale Street.”
Election to Tennessee General Assembly and a losing bid for re-election
In 1880 Norris, along with fellow Republican Thomas F. Cassels, was elected to represent Shelby County in the 42nd Tennessee General Assembly (1881-1882). The two Memphians, along with John W. Boyd (Tipton County) and Thomas A. Sykes (Davidson County) were the first African Americans elected after the end of Sampson Keeble’s term in 1874, and they focused much of their legislative energy on trying to overturn Tennessee’s first Jim Crow law, Chapter 130 of the Acts of 1875. This bill, which permitted discrimination in admitting people to public events and vehicles, was enacted during the first House session after Keeble left office, and it foreshadowed the voting restrictions that would become law in 1889 and 1890, after the last African American legislators of the century ended their terms in office.
In the 1882 election the Democratic party made a concerted effort to pilfer black votes from the Republicans, placing black candidates on their own ballots for the first time. Among the African Americans convinced to join the Democratic fusionist slate, which supported General William Brimage Bate (1826-1905) as their candidate for governor, were legislative candidates Isham F. Norris (referred to throughout the election period as I. F. Norris) and William F. Price, a Bartlett farmer. The Democratic press praised the two as “men of fine practical sense and good judgment,” unsullied by “personal political ambitions,” and well able to represent both the interests of their white constituents and “the wants of the 35,000 colored people in Shelby County.” The Memphis Daily Appeal produced a daily stream of articles encouraging white voters not to scratch out the names of the black candidates on their ballots. However, the Nashville Banner called Price and Norris “unprincipled Republican Negro characters” who could not speak for the “respectable, honest, fair-minded colored man in the state” because they were “too disreputable to do the dirty work of the Republican administration.” As it turned out, many white Democrats were unwilling to vote for a black candidate, however reputable or disreputable he might be. Tennessee Democrats under Bate won a resounding victory, as did other Democrats across the county. The states of New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Indiana, Michigan, and Kansas went Democratic, several for the first time in their history. Every Democratic candidate on the Shelby County Democratic ticket won handily . . . except for Norris and Price, who were decisively defeated. Ironically, the nearly unknown Leon Howard, one of two blacks who had remained on the Republican ticket, was the only African American from Shelby County elected to the Tennessee General Assembly that term, winning more votes than even Thomas F. Cassels, who was much better known. Howard would join John W. Boyd (Tipton County, in his second term), Samuel A. McElwee (Haywood County, in his first of three terms), and David Rivers (Fayette County). Embarrassed Democratic party leaders started a movement to have Norris appointed doorkeeper of the House, but there is no evidence that their plan was successful. The Daily Appeal expressed its annoyance by continuing to add to the guilt trip: after candidate Price wrote a gracious thank-you letter to the newspaper for its efforts on his behalf, an editorial said the letter was “pervaded by a spirit so generous and appreciative that we feel more than ever regretful that the writer, with Norris, was not elected. Mr. Price is a hard-working, intelligent and successful farmer, a representative of the best elements of his race, and we very much regret his defeat.” (November 12, 1882)
Isham Norris attended the 1884 Tennessee Convention, at which, as the March 15 New York Globe pointed out, “Most of the prominent colored men of the State were present,” including his fellow legislators Thomas F. Cassels (elected chairman of the convention), Samuel A. McElwee (elected secretary), and Thomas A. Sykes. The group issued a number of resolutions on various issues, including jury selection, lynching, and persistent prejudice against blacks.
Marriage to Stella R. Butler
In July 1886 the Huntsville Gazette, which would announce Norris’s marriage to Miss Stella R Butler later in the year, commented on his candidacy for a local office in Memphis: “I. F. Norris, the candidate for Circuit Court Clerk, has been in the Legislature, and represents his race with fair intelligence, and will be apt to secure a rather full colored vote.”
Stella Butler had moved to Memphis about 1883 with her cousin Ida B. Wells. The two young women boarded together at Mrs. Hill’s house on Tate Street. When they first arrived, Stella worked as a seamstress, but by 1886 both women were teaching school.
Ida B. Wells referred in her diary to Wednesday evening, November 23, 1886, as the “day of days, the night of Norris and Stella’s marriage.” Wells, who was maid of honor, wrote enthusiastically about the event, which may also have been attended by Samuel A. McElwee:
The church was crowded & the house was packed, and the presents were many & beautiful. There were three bridesmaids each, of which I was the first. Everybody said we looked “sweet” & I guess we did. The bride was simply lovely.... Sunday (today) I wrote to Mr. H & then went again to see Miss Shappard where I met Mr. McAlwee [sic]. From there I went to Stella’s & remained all the afternoon. Had a pleasant time.
Middle-class African Americans in Memphis took part in what Miriam Decosta-Willis calls a “continual round of visits, teas, parties, and entertainments. In February 1889 the Norrises, along with Ida B. Wells, Samuel A. McElwee, and other “aristocrats of color,” attended a banquet at the Live Oak Club. Church & Walter quoted the Memphis Watchman, which described it as
. . . the most successful social occasion that Memphis has witnessed in Colored society. The event was held at the Natatorium Hall. The reception began at 8 p.m., dancing at 9, and refreshments were served at 11 p.m. Elegant cards of invitation tied in satin ribbon were issued, and the menu consisted of turkey, ham, oysters, salads, ice cream, fruits, and wines.
Stella Rose Butler, according to her descendants, was said to have Chickasaw blood, and “she looked like a little squaw with braids down to her waist.” (Jack) Her son Carl Love said that she had Jewish blood, as well. Her death records list her mother’s name as Butler (no given name is indicated), and her father’s as Samuel Levy.
The move to Oklahoma
There were no entries for Isham Norris in the Memphis city directories after 1892. A story naming him as an emigration agent for a railroad company appeared in the Langston City (Oklahoma) Herald in February of that year, and a note in the same newspaper in April reported that he had moved his family there on April 14 and was preparing “to build at once.” Church & Walter suggest (p. 66) that “because of a misunderstanding about his grocery store with white citizens, [Norris] learned his life was in danger, and he and his family had to leave Memphis very suddenly, at night, to avoid any confrontation.” However, Ida B. Wells’ autobiography, Crusade for Justice (Duster), describes a calmer departure:
Hon. I. F. Norris, a former member of the state legislature, whose wife was a relative of mine, suggested that I go out to Oklahoma to find out the truth [see next paragraph] for my paper. He had been closing out his business affairs and was now ready to leave with his family.
The horrific lynching of three African American grocers in Memphis in March 1892 had alarmed local black residents and undoubtedly had much to do with the Norrises’ decision to leave the city. Wells began to publish a powerful series of anti-lynching editorials in her newspaper, the Free Speech and Headlight. Among other things, she urged African Americans to leave Tennessee as quickly as possible. Oklahoma was just opening its territory to new settlers, so it became a promising destination for people fleeing Memphis, but stories had come back warning of hostile Indians, drought and starvation, and other hardships. When a mob destroyed Wells’s newspaper office on May 27, she agreed to go to Oklahoma with the Norrises in order to determine how safe the new territories were and to write letters back in which she continued to encourage people to move there. After a few months she moved to Chicago, where she embarked on the speaking tour that made her a national figure.
By September 1892 Isham F. Norris had settled his family in Logan County, Oklahoma, and announced his candidacy for county clerk. Although he seems to have been widely expected to win that seat, he lost the election to a white opponent.
Census records show that the Norrises lived in Oklahoma for close to ten years. In fact, it is census records that provide the most significant insights into Norris family life. In 1900 the family was living on a farm, which they owned mortgage-free, in Rock Township, Payne County, Oklahoma; Norris (48) listed his occupation as “farmer.” By 1900 he had been married to Stella R. (née Stella Rosa Butler) for 13 years. Stella (33) said that she was born November 1866 in Mississippi, and that by 1900 she had given birth to four children, all still living. She reported that her father was born in Germany and her mother in Mississippi. Although the children were still quite young, the two older boys, both born in Tennessee, were employed as farm laborers: Ira Franklin (12), born November 17, 1887, and Percy Fernandis (10), born July 15, 1889. The other two boys, both born after the move to Oklahoma, were still babies: Carl Love (2), born August 13, 1897, and little Claudius Daniel (10 months), born August 11, 1899.
A newspaper advertisement from November 1892 shows Norris to be a grocer, with a lively trade in liquor. In May 1893 “Hon. I. F. Norris” was part of a board appointed to oversee aid to victims of a destructive tornado that had caused havoc in the region.
An 1892 advertisement in the local newspaper suggests that Norris was not active in the temperance movement, as so many of his colleagues were. The ad for his grocery store reads, in part, “Everything fresh and sold at the lowest prices. If you want a pint, quart or a gallon of the best Kentucky Rye or Corn WHISKY, call on I.F. Norris. The man who drinks my whisky once, will always come to buy it again. – Corner Oklahoma and First Street. Guthrie, Oklahoma.”
Locating this record of Isham as a liquor dealer is especially interesting in light of this story, shared by a Norris descendant in 2011:
There was a great story about Isaac’s tee-totalness. He forced all his children to be tee-totalers and, with the exception of Wendell, I believe they all were. Isaac was at a wedding in Oklahoma where the guests got into a barrel of rum. They all became quite excited and started to shoot their guns off. The mother of the bride got shot, as did some guests, and that was the end of Isaac’s drinking life!
A comment in the Perry (Oklahoma) Journal provides an amusing glimpse into the year the Norris family left Oklahoma: “I. F. Norris, the colored politician of Payne county, has migrated to Honolulu where he expects to reside. We wish he had paid his back subscription to the Sentinel before he left.” Family members believe that fears about local vigilante violence may in fact have convinced the Norris family it was time to move on. They did originally intend to move to Hawaii, where their darker skin would have caused them fewer difficulties.
The Norris family settles in Seattle, Washington
News articles beginning in 1905, along with the 1910 census, show that the Norris family had made the surprising decision to move to Seattle, where they quickly became involved in the life of this active community. Other Norris families lived nearby, according to the census, so it was possible Isham’s family was joining relatives in the Northwest. Norris (59 by now) owned a transfer (trucking) business called the Southern Transfer Moving Company and also operated a livery stable. He had already paid off the mortgage on their house at 535 Federal Avenue, so he was obviously making a comfortable income. Stella (40) reported in this census that her father had been born in the United States, but she did not name a state. Ira (22) and Percy (20) were working as an auto repairman and a transfer driver, respectively. Carl (12) and Claudius (10) were in school, and the fifth Norris son, Wendell Bryant, was a toddler, born October 29, 1908, after the move to Washington. Also living with the family at that time was a niece, Ellen Harris, age 13, a Tennessee native.
Norris continued to participate in political activities after the move to Seattle. He presided over a Republican voter rally in February 1908 and was elected president of the Afro-American Club for at least two terms. In 1911 he ran for city council, “the only Negro in the race.” He was on a committee to entertain “colored sailors in the Pacific Fleet” during World War I, and he helped organize dances, a rodeo, ball games (at least two of the Norris sons played in a Negro baseball league), boxing matches, and street carnivals. He chaired the Colored Roosevelt Memorial Association, a committee raising funds for a monument to Theodore Roosevelt, and he was often seated on the dais at important community events, including the annual Emancipation Day celebrations. He survived a 1915 automobile accident with a jitney bus that injured four people and demolished his “big touring car.”
The World War I registration cards of all the Norris sons except Wendell (who was only ten years old in 1918) provide some interesting information regarding their employment and physical descriptions. The three oldest sons were all working in the transfer business. Ira (30), who said he was self-employed, was tall and of medium build, with dark eyes and black hair. Percy (27), a chauffeur with Southern Transfer, was tall and slender with hazel eyes and black hair. The registration card for Carl (21), who was working for I. F. Norris Jr. at the same address as the Southern Transfer Company, listed no physical details except for blue eyes and dark hair. Young Claudius (19) was still a student at Broadway High School. He named his mother as his nearest relative, and was described on the card as tall and stout with dark hair and eyes.
Two years later, as recorded in the 1920 census, Isham Norris (68) was working as a stockman for the Black Mfg. Co., a remarkable enterprise founded in 1914 by George G. Black to manufacture Black Bear overalls. “Concerned for the health and welfare of his employees,” Black rejected the all-too-familiar sweatshop conditions of the traditional garment industry and hired Andrew Willatzen (1876-1974), a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, to design a building that would be functional, attractive, and employee-friendly. [It featured large windows and skylights, a roof garden, and a cafeteria that sold food at cost to the workers. In 1987 the city council designated the building a Seattle Landmark.] It must have been a very comfortable place for Norris to work in his later years. In 1920 Stella (60) still had three big sons to feed: Carl (22) and Claudius (20) were both truck drivers for the transfer company and lived at home; Wendell (11) was still in school. Photos show them to be tall, sturdy young men. Ira F. (32), the oldest Norris son, was working for an auto transfer firm in Seattle; his wife Octavia was a stenographer with the same company. Ira later became sheriff and was active in Republican politics. In 1936 he was a delegate to the Washington Commonwealth Federation state convention, where he was appointed to the legislative committee.
In the 1930 census Stella, now widowed, appeared in two separate households: she was listed in Percy’s household, but also in Carl and Wendell’s, who were sharing a residence. Carl and Claudius were Seattle policemen; Wendell and Percy were stevedores. (Ira’s name was missing from that census.) Stella Rosa Butler Norris died in Seattle on June 10, 1946, almost 20 years after her husband. She was 73 years old. Her death record names her father as Samuel Levy, but gives only the surname Butler for her mother.
According to Washington state death records, Isham F. Norris, son of Daniel Norris, died in Seattle on September 23, 1928, at the age of 74 years, 11 months, and 8 days. After a funeral service conducted by Bonney-Watson Funeral Home, his body was cremated. Having moved far away from the crushing effects of Southern Jim Crow laws, I. F. Norris and his family seem to have lived busy and productive lives in the American Northwest. KBL 11/09/2012