It had to be teaching: Thelma Norris remembers career spanning segregation, integration


JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Thelma Norris’s parents “didn’t talk about black and white,” but the Johnson City resident clearly remembers her first reckoning that she lived in a segregated society.

Thelma Norris.

“When I had to pass by the white school and see the children playing there, and think about how much further I had to walk over into the hills to the little building that was there for the black children I thought about it, and I wondered why I couldn’t go there.”

That was in the late 1920s. Then Thelma Haynes, whose aunt had taught her to read, went on to attend a segregated high school in Elizabethton. She graduated from segregated black colleges and taught elementary school off an on for more than two decades in all-black schools.

Thelma Norris at her 1962 ETSU graduation.

After four years at Johnson City’s all-black Douglass Elementary — and more than a decade after “Brown vs Board of Education” made desegregation the law of the land — Thelma Norris, now a wife, mother and experienced teacher, joined her fellow African-American teachers and their students in the transition to integrated schools.

The slightly built 97-year-old who said she always wanted to be a teacher would become a beloved fixture at Fairmont Elementary from 1966 until her retirement in 1987. Norris shared her memories and thoughts about teaching, segregation, family and progress toward racial harmony for our Hidden History series.

‘I just knew that’s what I wanted to do’

The daughter of George and Viola Haynes, Thelma Haynes was born near Milligan College in the area known as The Laurels. She can’t remember not wanting to be a teacher.

“When I was young I used to teach my dolls,” she said. “And I just knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Thelma Haynes at high school graduation, 1941.

After her aunt taught her to read, she paid it forward by teaching her cousins. When she got old enough around 1934, Norris went to an Elks Building in Elizabethton, which was all that passed for a high school for African-Americans at the time. Later, the city would build Douglas High School for its black students.

“We just made do. We had a downstairs and an upstairs, and we had tables and chairs, but we didn’t have anything like a school building.”

What Norris did have was a principal who would continue to influence her life, in the person of Amelia Duffield. After graduating, she chose Rogersville’s Swift Memorial Junior College, one of two Northeast Tennessee institutions of higher education open to black students. The other was Morristown College.

Duffield helped steer her to Rogersville. That decision would impact Norris’s life in more ways than one.

During her freshman year, she was paired up with a “brother,” and that brother had a friend back home in Big Stone Gap, Va.

‘It had to be you’

Norris’s brother had told a young man named Willie Norris he wanted Norris to “meet my sister.” So in the Kingsport bus station as she waited to finish her journey to Rogersville, Thelma was approached by Willie Norris — a stranger to whom she admits she did not pay much mind.

But Willie Norris had never met a stranger, and certainly not one as pretty as young Thelma. “He sang to me,” she remembers. “He sang, ‘It Had to Be You.'”

Thelma and Willie during World War II.

A romance was soon kindled. World War II intervened, and when Willie Norris entered the service, Thelma learned that a fellow Elizabethton native was supervisor of the one-room, first through eighth grade African-American school in Lebanon in Middle Tennessee.

Norris had an in, and after a long train ride, she set foot in that schoolhouse for her first teaching job. It was 1943.

“The children were just about larger than I was,” Norris said. “Had these tall boys, but their fathers and mothers told us ‘we send our children to school to be taught, and you will not have any problems from them.’ That turned out to be true. They were just so good to me, they’d do anything for me.”

African-American teachers in the Lebanon, Tennessee school system c. 1944.

During the summers, Norris worked on her bachelor’s degree at Nashville’s Tennessee State University — still segregated — and Willie came in at one point in 1944 so they could tie the knot.

After the war, Willie furthered his skills as a mechanic using the GI Bill, attending school in Hampton, Va. Thelma lived with Willie’s parents in Big Stone Gap. She spent her weekdays boarding at a home in Pennington Gap and teaching elementary at another one-room, segregated school.

Hope for change and ‘the Armstrong incident’

From Lebanon to Pennington Gap to Douglass Elementary in the early 1960s, Norris experienced conflicting emotions. She continued to love teaching and love her students. She said she was surrounded by qualified teachers and students with strong abilities, but all were operating with substandard facilities and materials.

“We received the books from the white school. We didn’t get the new books. We got those hand me down books.”

Norris said she charted a path of patience and prayer, not agitation. “That was just about all I could do at that time. That’s all I knew to do. I hoped that something would happen.”

An April 1944 Johnson City Press-Chronicle article surrounding Langston Principal Neil Armstrong’s firing. (courtesy Tennessee State Library and Archives)

Things were happening as Norris stayed home with her young children. In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court codified desegregation in schools with Brown vs. Board of Education. Just before that decision, Johnson City experienced something that showed just how little power black citizens had over their own affairs.

J. Neil Armstrong had helped lead Langston High School to a prominent academic position during 17 years as principal. He had a masters degree and additional graduate work. But on April 13, 1954 — five weeks before the SCOTUS’s unanimous ruling on “Brown” — the Johnson City Board of Education fired Armstrong in a closed meeting at the behest of Superintendent John Arrants.

A Press-Chronicle photo showing a Langston student strike (Courtesy Tennessee State Library and Archives)

Two-thirds of the student body walked out in protest, drawing ire from Arrants and jeers from some Science Hill High School students as they marched to the all-white high school. The board agreed to reconsider the firing but made it permanent.

“We were saddened by that, because he was such a wonderful man,” Norris said.

The Norrises had named their daughter after Armtrong’s wife, and the incident has not faded in Norris’s memory.

“I couldn’t understand it because he was so good. He was so good.” Good enough, in fact, to catch on with his alma mater, North Carolina A&T, where he served as a professor.

Integration and beyond

Norris had been back in the classroom for five years when the Johnson City schools finally integrated. Norris was paired up with Stratton Elementary’s principal, Rosa Lee Link, to manage the coming changes.

Unlike the city’s school board, which operated behind closed doors in removing Armstrong, Link was frank with Norris.

“She told me that she was not for integration, but that she would do everything in her power to see that everything went well. And she did.

“I knew about the black kids and she knew about the white kids, so we could help each other, and we did, and she became my friend.”

In her mid-40s, Thelma Norris began teaching in integrated schools. Norris served more than two decades at Fairmont Elementary before retiring in 1987. She taught second grade most of that time before teaching fourth graders for her final three years.

A late career teacher portrait.

Johnson City had dragged its feet on integration, like many southern communities, but Norris said once it finally arrived, things went relatively smoothly. A teacher through and through, she speaks fondly of her long career.

“I just loved what I did. I taught, and that was what I wanted to do,” Norris said. “And I hope that I have touched some lives. And when I get a card from one of my students now, it just makes me want to cry, because I’m happy. And I do get cards from my students.”

Willie Norris died in the spring of 2017. Norris spends lots of time with a niece and still lives in the home she and Willie purchased close to 70 years ago. Children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are in now and then. They live in a society that affords them more opportunity than she had in the first half of the 20th century, Norris said.

“We’ve come a long way. But we still have a long way to go.”

Asked what people can do to continue propelling the American culture forward in terms of race relations, Norris paused for several seconds. “I’m not sure,” she said. Then she paused for a full 10 seconds more.

“I think we just have to love. We have to love each other. We have to respect each other.”

Thelma and Willie Norris at a Pro-To Club dinner in Johnson City.

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