Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People: Black Role Models

BOND: Outside the family, what about teachers -- grade school, Dunbar, college, law school?

NORTON: I just feel fortunate that because -- apparently now -- because if you were an African American in Washington, D.C., which was a very highly educated city for black people because it had Howard University, it had government employment -- if you were an African American, you would have been encouraged to get higher education, but you would've had very few places to exercise it. And one of the places to exercise it would have been in teaching. And I recall feeling that I had very good teachers. I remember very specifically who those teachers were. I can't tell you that a particular teacher among them all was instrumental in anything I did. I do believe that the excellence of these teachers in elementary, junior high school, and high school combined for a purpose, a purpose of making us want to do better.

BOND: And I noticed you mentioned Telford Taylor, Fred Rodell, and Pauli Murray. What influence did they have on you?

NORTON: Well, probably, if you want to go to that end of my life, in law school it would be A. Leon Higginbotham, the black judge I clerked for getting out of -- when I got out of law school. Now, there's where you learn -- there's where you learn, if you think you have a sense of excellence now, you will have it elevated when you deal with a man like Judge Higginbotham, a man for all intents and purposes, had Democrats been in power, would've been on the Supreme Court. [A man] whose sense of intellectual curiosity led him finally, when he got to a certain point, to leave the Court of Appeals and to become a scholar, who, when I clerked for him had me not only researching what a case was about, or matter was about before him, but whenever he'd go to give a speech, he'd have me go to the library to find out certain kinds of facts upon which he would build a speech and that has really stuck with me. Instead of speaking in generalities, I've always felt that I had to start from a factual base and then make a point, and I think Higginbotham had a lot to do with that. Pauli Murray -- this was an extraordinary woman who in her time, which means my time, was seen as something of a curiosity because she understood feminism before any woman I --

BOND: Before people used the word.

NORTON: Right. And before any woman I know, frankly. I met her when she was pursuing, of all degrees, an advanced degree in law, which nobody goes to get at Yale Law School. I think that might have been because when she would have been in law school, schools like Yale and Harvard didn't accept women. I think she may have been simply proving something to herself, because she ultimately became an Episcopal priest. This was a woman that -- I must say, when she was at Yale, because she was older, a black American getting this kind of degree, she seemed to many a curiosity. To me, she seemed somebody you wanted to talk to.

BOND: And did you talk to her? Did you have a conversation with her about her life and what propelled her and did that rub off on you?

NORTON: Certainly about her life. Her life was very different. I find it -- this notion about role models and so forth is a very important notion and means a great deal, particularly to young people today. When I try to think, "Well, did it mean a great deal to me?" I believe that the reason it did not is because I was a little colored girl and there weren't any role models. That is to say, I had -- if you were looking for people to be like, well, who was I going be like? Marian Anderson? I can't sing. If you wanted to go to college, and that is something I wanted to do from I think the time I came out of the womb because my parents -- if you just grow up in a household like that, you want to do that --

I think we did not use so much the notion of role models because there weren't a lot of them. What we did use was black history. This was very much of a black history town because -- come on Eleanor. I've just gotten his house --

BOND: Carter G. Woodson.

NORTON: Carter G. Woodson was headquartered right in this town, and we got the Negro History Bulletin every week or -- I won a prize. I remember in elementary school. I still have a little book for being able to talk about, to answer questions and they would stand you up and pass down the line questions, and being able to ask questions about black heroes. But at the same time, to be absolutely candid, when you are reading about black heroes, many of them dead, it was hard to regard them as role models.

BOND: But at the same time, can't you say that you took from Higginbotham some idea of what a scholar was or could be?

NORTON: Oh, he was certainly a role model.

BOND: And from Pauli Murray this older woman, who is trying to achieve a degree beyond the law degree, some example of what women might do?

NORTON: Oh, there's no question. If you talk about the differences between when I am a grown woman, albeit still in my formative years, and when I'm a child, there's no question by that time with the civil rights movement starting, with the opportunities I had to meet these two black people in particular, their lives did inform what I thought was possible for my life if I would try to imitate the best of what I saw in them. And I'm telling you, what I saw in them was not excellence, it was pluperfect excellence. These were -- I mean people today would call them super Negroes. These were people who were the best of the --

I remember Judge Higginbotham telling me that when he was considered first for the District Court -- it was very rare when he was considered, he was thirty-four years old, there were almost no blacks on the Federal District Court. He went on also to be on the Court of Appeals. He said they couldn't find one penny in his tax statements and in his life that had not been accounted for. I mean, I saw Higginbotham say to his secretary -- have her keep an account of anything that -- any use of his office that could be considered private so that he could pay it at the end of the tax year. That's somebody you -- particularly if you're a young lawyer, that's somebody you need to see.

I remember -- who is it that taught me transparent candor? I'm not sure quite sure, but I learned the notion of -- so just how deep honesty had to be, from clerking for Higginbotham. And I was trying to think of the whole notion of candor, who taught me that candor was better than hiding stuff, that if you let -- that if you yourself say what has happened, you have a better chance than if you try to hide it, but I forget who taught me that.