Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Social Consciousness: Race and Segregation

BOND: But, still, you tell a story about your grandmother teaching you to stand up for your rights and the rights of others at least by the time you're seven.


BOND: How'd that come?

NORTON: Well, first of all, race was always discussed. Race was discussed at home between my parents. Race was a constant subject, and race was discussed in this way -- if I may kind of characterize it, because these would not be the exact words. I mean, you look all around you, you see black people in a segregated city, you see them going to school part-time at Howard, you see them going to the Miner Teacher's College, you see them going full-time at Howard, you see -- you have Dunbar High School preparing people to go to all the best schools in the United States -- and they left that high school to go everywhere in the United States every single year -- and so the talk is about living in a society surrounded by mediocre white people who have the power to segregate you and what to do about it.

BOND: Even at age seven?

NORTON: Because it's not talking to you, it is the way in which conversation around you occurs, so that you get to -- and here I have to give the credit to my family and I must say, to the black community in Washington. There was this sense. Remember, this was a southern town. Many of the people here were from Maryland and Virginia. They brought those attitudes with them. Those were white segregated states. We did not regard the whites who came from those states to work here in the government as people who exemplified the best traits in the society. And yet they had, as it were, power over us. So our sense, the sense I think that came particularly to young people was that whatever segregation was about, it was not about being inferior, because we felt we were surrounded by mediocre white people or southern white people who didn't seem to be striving for as much education as we, had not gone to a high school like Dunbar, had not sent their children away to all the best schools on scholarship, so what is this about inferiority? I never remember feeling in the District of Columbia that segregation had anything to do with inferiority. That may have had a lot to do also with the fact that we did not have signs, we did not have the fountains and the rest --

BOND: White and colored signs.

NORTON: -- that humiliated or designed to humiliate people.

BOND: But to what extent does a seven-year-old girl have of this larger white world? My picture of you at seven years old is living in comfortable circumstances surrounded by black people, going to schools taught by black people, principals are black people, living, in effect, in a black world. Now, your parents have a broader experience in that, but what do white people mean to you when you were seven?

NORTON: Oh, you're right. I was living in a completely black world. I remember when I came back -- when we moved back to Washington -- we came back really for the first time to chair the EEOC -- I remember that huge parts of Washington I'd never been in and I remember my mother and I driving -- my father was deceased by that time -- around parts of Washington where white people lived that I had never once ventured into. Yes, we lived in a very black world, a very segregated world, whether you were going to the movies or whether you were going to school, but we lived in a world of great race consciousness, of great civil rights consciousness, a really striving African American community that knew good and well, as between ourselves and the people who segregated us, something was wrong with them, and who reinforced this, not by hatred.

There was a real sense of brotherly love as an obligation and what this meant. But -- and that's why I think black history and going to black schools mattered because you learned black history, you know, you learned "Life Every Voice & Sing" by heart because you sang it so often. There was a sense of pride, but you also learned -- you also learned, and this is something I've only had to tell myself recently, that the stereotypes of black people were not totally unfounded.

I know that that was what was trying to be communicated to us when, for example, when the teachers took us on trips. And when we went on trips, you got on the bus or the streetcar and you were told, "Just a moment. When you get on that streetcar, you know what these white people expect you to do, and you've got to be on your best behavior." Now, I remember them linking that to the stereotypic expectations of how they thought black people acted and that that was -- that we should not reinforce that stereotype. I remember that, so that there was, I don't think a sense of self-hatred, but there was a sense that said, "Look, yes, some of that is true and it's not true of you and you're supposed to show."

BOND: And don't reinforce it.

NORTON: Exactly. They were quite blunt about it, teachers were.