Isaac F. Norris, ca. 1851 - September 23, 1928
Isaac F. Norris
from composite photograph of
Tennessee House of Representatives,
42nd General Assembly, 1881-1882,
Following the complex trail of documents about Isham F. Norris is a labyrinthine chase. Not only did Norris move his family to some extremely unexpected locations, but he also went by two different names: Isham and Isaac. He himself tended to choose Isham for 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 interchangeably.
The 1900 census, the first in which Isham Norris was mentioned, listed October 1851 as his birth date. All three census records in which his name appeared stated that he was born in Tennessee, although no information has yet been located that would identify his exact birthplace, his parents, or his birth status (slave or free). The detailed age information provided in his death certificate, which stated he was born in 1854, suggests that his birth date was, in fact, October 15, 1853 – he was said to have died at the age of 74 years, 11 months, and 8 days.
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); the directories never 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: J. Harris (probably John Harris, a wood dealer), Thomas J. Turner (a teacher at the Winchester School), and the Reverend Mr. Taylor Nightingale (pastor of the First Baptist Church, 155 Beale Street, and part owner of the Memphis Free Speech newspaper, where Ida B. Wells would soon become a writer and editor).
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, in company 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 railroad travel and admission to public events, had been enacted during the first House session after Keeble left office, and it foreshadowed the voting restrictions that would be 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.” 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. New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Indiana, Michigan, and Kansas went Democratic, many of these states 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, Leon Howard, one of the 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. He 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).
There were no entries for Isham Norris in the Memphis city directories after 1892. We learn from census records that he moved his family to Oklahoma for a few years, and later to Seattle, Washington. Two of his children were born in Oklahoma (Carl, in August 1897, and Claudius, in August 1899), so we know that the family left Memphis between 1892 and 1897.
It was census records that finally began to provide insights into Norris family life. In the 1900 census the family was living on a farm, which they owned mortgage-free, in Rock Township in 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) was born November 1866 in Mississippi and by 1900 had given birth to four children, all still living. She reported that her father was born in Germany and her mother in Mississippi. Although all 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.
By 1910 we find that the Norris family had made the surprising decision to move to Seattle. Other Norris families lived nearby, according to census records, so it was possible Isham’s family was joining relatives in the Northwest. Norris (59) owned a transfer (trucking) business and had already paid off the mortgage on their house at 535 Federal Avenue, so he was obviously making a comfortable income. Stella (40) reported at the time that her father had been born in the United States but did not provide specifics. 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 year and a half old, born October 29, 1908, after the family’s move to Washington. Also living with the family at that time was a niece, Ellen Harris, age 13, a Tennessee native.
The World War I registration cards of all the Norris sons except Wendell (who was only ten years old in 1918) provided some interesting information regarding employment and physical description. 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 the Southern Transfer Company, 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; and young Claudius (19) was still a student at Broadway High School. He named his mother as his nearest relative and was described 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,” (HistoryLink.org) he rejected the all-too-familiar sweatshop conditions of the 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. Stella (60) still had three 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. 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.
The 1930 census showed Stella, widowed by that time, appearing in two separate households: she was listed in Percy’s household, and also in Carl and Wendell’s, who were sharing a house. Carl and Claudius were Seattle policemen; Wendell and Percy were longshoremen. (Ira’s name did not appear in that census.) Stella Rosa Butler Norris died in Seattle on June 10, 1946, almost 30 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 died in Seattle on September 23, 1928, at the age of 74 years, 11 months, and 8 days. Having moved far away from the crushing effects of Southern Jim Crow laws, he and his family seem to have lived busy and productive lives in the American Northwest.
Cartwright, Joseph H. The Triumph of Jim Crow: Tennessee Race Relations in the 1880s.
Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976.
Lovett, Bobby L. A Profile of African Americans in Tennessee History: Introduction. http://www.tnstate.edu/library/digital/document.htm
McBride, Robert M., and Dan M. Robinson. Biographical Directory, Tennessee General Assembly, Volume II (1861-1901). Nashville: Tennessee State Library and Archives, and Tennessee Historical Commission, 1979.
Memphis City Directories: Boyle-Chapman, 1872, 1874; Sholes, 1878, 1882, 1885; Weatherbe,
1883; Dow, 1885-1891; Polk, 1891-1892.
Memphis Daily Appeal, October 18, 26, and 29, 1882; November 3, 4, 9, 10, and 12, 1882.
Nashville Banner, October 7, 1882.
“Seattle Landmarks: Black Manufacturing Co. (1914).” HistoryLink. http://www.historylink.org/
Tennessee General Assembly. Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Tennessee.
Nashville: Tavel and Howell, 1881, 1883.