GREENVILLE — 93-year-old Xanthene Norris doesn’t whirl around in high heels like she used to, but she still keeps the sparkle in her eyes when she’s passionate about a topic.
There’s brilliance when she talks about her mom and dad, who she says have influenced her life as an educator, civil rights advocate and public servant. Later, coming out on the issue of race, the glow returns when she discusses how some civil servants have changed over the years.
It’s there again when she recalls students she taught at Sterling High School before integration and then at Greenville High School as a guidance counselor or through college preparation programs. They include legislators Lillian Bullock Fleming and Russell Stahl, as well as Alan Mitchell, who was elected to replace her in the Greenville County Legislature in January.
Norris retired from politics after 25 years on the Greenville County Council’s 23rd District. She now leaves behind a legacy of her service and her lifelong work in the community where she is responsible for those she mentors.
“I just did what I knew I had to do,” Norris says from the living room of her home in Nicoltown, where hundreds of ephemeral works, family portraits and awards surround the room. “It was worth it. It was worth it. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.”
Norris was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and her family moved to Greenville when she was three years old. Her mother taught at Sterling, a black high school in Greenville before the integration, and her father worked on the railroad and later as an elevator operator for the Greenville News.
Norris still remembers the moment he realized black people were being treated as second-class citizens. She usually walked where she needed to go, but sometimes she took a bus. On one occasion, her bus driver accused Norris of not paying her fare, but Norris had put the coin in a slot, he told her to go to the back of the bus and slapped her I did, said Norris.
“I was horrified,” said Norris. She told her parents that night and her father confronted the driver with her the next day. But when her father confronted the driver, he angered his father and told him to go to the back of the bus. She remembers her father walking to the back of the bus without saying much.
“I was so hurt because he couldn’t do anything,” Norris said.
The incident presages her later involvement in the civil rights movement in Greenville.
After attending Stirling and graduating as valedictorian, Norris enrolled at Clark College in Atlanta, where he sang in the choir and met a student named Martin Luther King Jr. at nearby Morehouse College.
After graduation, she said she wanted to stay in Atlanta. Because in the 1940s and she was a hotbed of black culture in the 50s. But she wanted to repay the sacrifices her parents made in educating and sending her out, so she returned to Greenville. she goes to college.
She became a teacher and later earned a master’s degree at Furman College as one of the first black female students.
She chose the historic Springfield Baptist Church as her home church and quickly became an integral part of the civil rights movement.
Springfield was the starting point for the civil rights movement that ultimately pushed for the consolidation of Greenville County. Norris helped plan the logistics of many attempts to consolidate Greenville, including the lunch counter sit-ins that marched down McBee Avenue and the now-famous Greenville Eight, which led the consolidation of the Greenville Library. . The Reverend Jesse Jackson, who was one of her students at Stirling, helped lead the library sit-in in 1960.
At the time, Norris said many of the clues to Greenville’s integration came from work being done elsewhere, particularly in Atlanta. I stayed. In 1967 Stirling burned to the ground as the schools were being consolidated. The cause of the fire officially remains a mystery.
Norris, who was in Stirling the night of the fire, said the group decided not to deter them from their efforts.
“We’re going to do what’s necessary for Greenville,” she said of their decision.
The school merged with Greenville in 1970. Two years later, in 1972, the Springfield fire caused him $650,000 in damage to the historic church. A painting of the church still hangs in Norris’ living room. The church was rebuilt and reopened in 1976.
While working for civil rights, Norris also worked on community education. At Sterling, she later taught French at Greenville High School and created a college preparatory program conducted in Springfield. She helped students prepare to take her ACT and SAT tests and provided tutoring and guidance.
Today she considers it one of her greatest achievements, and it is still frequently heard.
“Looking at[former students]now, ‘Thank you, Miss Norris. Without you, I wouldn’t have made it through college,'” she said.
Among those she helped was Fleming, who has been on the Greenville City Council for over 40 years. Mitchell, who will replace Norris as a council member for District 23, also received her help from Norris, she said.
“He was mine,” she said with a smile.
State Rep. Chandra Dillard has known Norris for a long time, but it was a guidance counselor at Greenville High School who first officially knew her.
“If she saw your potential and knew your interests, she would do everything she could to ignite a fire underneath them,” Dillard said.
Norris planned Dillard’s entire summer before her senior year of school, sending her to Girls State and then South Carolina State to earn college credit. It helped lay the groundwork for her political career for Dillard herself.
Norris later helped Dillard write his first campaign speech.
Norris retired from his teaching career in 1984, but remained involved in educational activities and community service.
She first ran for public office in 1997.
She was elected to serve with her good friend Lottie Gibson as two black women on the predominantly white, male county council.
As cities and counties across the country began recognizing Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday, each time a black legislator in Greenville County raised the issue, it was dropped. This holiday has been recognized by the federal government since 1983.
Norris, Gibson, and Wade Cleveland worked together for years to get the county to designate MLK Jr. as paid leave. Four times the Council has rejected it. But after a change of council, a nap in the county square, and Jackson’s numerous returns to Greenville, the council finally voted him 8-5 in 2005 to grant the holiday. I did.
Greenville was the last county in the country to officially recognize MLK Day as a paid vacation.
“She’s a very confident person and a strong-willed person,” said Fleming. “It was difficult for her to say no.”
Among Norris’ other accomplishments on the council was working with Dillard and Fleming to bring a footbridge to the Southern Side area. After the demolition of the Hampton Avenue bridge, after isolating Southernside to a pedestrian island, the connection to the rest of Greenville was restored over the tracks.
It was also a process of nearly ten years. The bridge opened his March 2020 and was named the Xanten Sails Norris Pedestrian Bridge.
Fleming said it was a fitting tribute to her long career being a friend and mentor to her.
“She worked so hard to do whatever she could for her community,” Fleming said.
Norris isn’t going to relax just yet. She said she will continue to engage with people she has known in the community for decades and continue some of her work in Springfield.
“I am happy,” she said.