Dr. Norris’ grandfather was one of the first black doctors to have practiced in his hometown of Virginia.
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by Dianne Saison

In 1939, nearly two decades before Dr. Martin Luther King’s profound Montgomery protest of racial segregation in public transportation, Dr. Morgan E. Norris organized a bus boycott in Lancaster County.

The first black doctor on the Northern Neck, Dr. Norris galvanized a community that had become marginalized, and in turn, changed the face of public-school transportation in the rural county near the mouth of the Rappahannock River.

For any other man, this would be a lifetime achievement. For Dr. Norris, it was just one of a multitude of accomplishments in his fight for equality in the health, education, and culture of the Northern Neck’s black community. Like many civil rights pioneers, his beginnings were humble. Unlike some of those activists, his story never became national news, despite the remarkable legacy he left behind.

Born in 1883, Dr. Norris’ family lived in poverty in a one-room cabin near the village of Lancaster. When he was three years old, his mother, Elizabeth, died –- most likely from undiagnosed tuberculosis –- leaving his father, John Benjamin, a widower with two young children to care for, Morgan and his older sister, Mary Jane.

At one point, the family was in such dire straits, Morgan was sent to his first day of school wearing the only clothing available in his home, his older sister’s long skirt. Ridiculed by the other children, he stormed home, threw the skirt in the fire and determinedly found himself a pair of trousers. It was that spark of rebellion that would lead him to destiny.

When he was 15, his father was set to remarry. Desperately wanting to build his new bride a better home with more than just a single room, John Benjamin found himself $50 shy of the funds needed to purchase a new property in Kilmarnock. Ever the enterprising youth, Morgan silently raised a corner of their flooring, taking out a jar of coins he had saved from his part-time work as a laborer and gave his father the money.

The next chapter of their lives was poised to be filled with joy and security. Unfortunately, tragedy came knocking again, forever altering the course of young Morgan’s life. Two years after moving into their new home, his father was struck with a terrible illness, the effects of which scarred the teen as he watched his once vibrant parent be decimated by the ugliness of liver cancer. In the early winter of 1900, Morgan brought his father to Baltimore for treatment, where he died during surgery.

Before his father passed away, Morgan made a promise to him — that he would “go away, become a doctor, and return so that no one will suffer as you have.” It was a promise that he kept. Shortly after his father’s death. Morgan moved in with his sister, in Yonkers, New York. A hard worker, Morgan impressed his employers, the Bunkers — a prominent white family. They soon became a second family to him, with their youngest son, Ellsworth, becoming Morgan’s lifelong friend and one of America’s leading statesmen. Through their encouragement and patronage, Morgan left New York and returned to Virginia.

He attended Hampton University. After graduating Hampton in 1908, he went on to four years of further education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1912. Following his dreams of becoming a doctor, he was accepted to Howard University’s College of Medicine, where he received his doctorate in 1916, followed by his medical internship at the Tuskegee Institute of Alabama’s John Andrew Hospital.

During his education, Dr. Norris became acquainted with many influential men, including George Washington Carver, Ernest Everett Just, ground-breaking African American biologist, and many other black pioneers. Upon Dr. Norris’s graduation, the head of Tuskegee Institute, Dr. R.R. Moton, wrote to Dr. Norris saying: “We were all very glad to have you at Tuskegee, and we appreciate the earnestness and faithfulness which you manifested in doing your work and catching hold of the Tuskegee Spirit.”

In 1917, at the age of 33, the newly minted Dr. Norris took that spirit and returned to Kilmarnock as the first black doctor in the entire region, and he immediately began implementing his plans to change the face, and color, of medicine on the Northern Neck. At the age of 34, Dr. Norris was at the home of friends in Richmond for a dinner party when he spied, upon his host’s piano, the portrait of a beautiful young woman. He was instantly smitten, asking for an introduction. The lady was Theresita Chiles, a fellow graduate of Hampton University, and a young woman dedicated to education. They met shortly thereafter and were married in 1918.

He opened his first practice out of the small, two-story house he inherited in Kilmarnock from his father, which would remain as Dr. Norris’ clinic and surgical ward. In 1927, he and his wife moved their growing family into a larger home built outside of Kilmarnock. He had recognized early in his career the need for specialized medicine on the Northern Neck. Doctors from around the country, including Alabama, Washington, D.C., and across Virginia, answered his call for help, and from his office in Lancaster he set up clinics where patients could be seen for ear, nose and throat ailments, orthopedics, general surgery, maternity, post-operative care, and orthopedics.

His requirement for all his patients was not that they have the ability to pay, but rather their simple need for care. During this time in America, tuberculosis was an epidemic infecting and killing millions across the world, and rural Virginia was no exception. Twice as many people in the state died of tuberculosis as from typhoid, smallpox, measles, scarlet fever, diphtheria, whooping cough and malaria combined. Dr. Norris, who had suffered from the disease as a child, was deeply troubled by the disparity in the medical care offered to whites versus blacks. The death rate for black people at that time was triple that of any other race, and although sanatoriums with schools, open air winds, and ample staff and medicines were available for the affluent white community, only 83 beds were available for blacks, with no attending doctors of color, at the Piedmont Tuberculosis Sanatorium for Negroes.

For years, Dr. Norris championed the cause to equal the care for the underserved community and was met with great resistance. He never backed down. On April 2, 1942, during a radio speech aired on Warsaw, Virginia’s WNNT, Dr. Norris called for greater federal and state funding in the tuberculosis fight, noting that while the germ did not discriminate between races, the treatment of it did.

“We are waging a total war,” he said, referring to the country’s involvement in World War II. “Let us wage it within as without against forces microbic as deadly as foes military.” During the radio address, he also called for greater attention to prenatal and maternity care for women of color, something society still struggles with today. It was a novel concept at that time, however, and it was the first time that those voiced concerns were heard by many in the community.

Although Dr. Norris and his colleagues fought a futile battle to have black doctors at Piedmont, their fight did result in increased beds at the facility, as well as some school instruction for children, who were often confined by the illness for years. Fair medical care was not the only passion of Dr. Norris, as became evident in the following years. In 1926, he was so affronted by a pamphlet for the “Whites Only” Chesapeake Fair that he confronted the event’s chairman. When told that he and his family would be considered an exception and could attend, he was infuriated, saying, “Anywhere I go, my people go.” The confrontation led to the launch of the region’s Afro-American Fair just a year later.

The fair was such a great success, that it outlasted its Chesapeake rival by 25 years. Never one to sit idle when he saw injustice, no matter the load he carried, Dr. Norris found perhaps his greatest challenge and legacy when he confronted inequality in regional education between white and black designated schools.

Dr. Norris and his wife had eight children, and up until 1934, they were forced to attend a small, one-room school in Kilmarnock — built in 1889 — that was overcrowded and dilapidated. Parents in the region had made little headway in their calls for a new school, so they approached the indomitable doctor pleading for his help. With his personal frustration as a parent of children attending the tiny premises, he jumped in with both feet to spearhead the efforts to build a modern, larger school with four classrooms and an auditorium.

He and a group of citizens bought an 11-acre parcel of land near his home. Through diligent fundraising, including contributions from Mary Ball duPont (a renowned patron for charities on the Northern Neck), a personal loan that he took out against his own property, as well as donations from black and white local families and businesses, he was able to raise enough money to finally erect the school, which the community named after him. It took years, but the Morgan E. Norris Graded School, the Northern Neck’s first brick school for black students, opened its doors on December 16, 1934.

Although a huge accomplishment, that was nothing compared to his next educational move. A huge proponent of the advancement of his people through education, Dr. Norris again took up the mantle in the fight for equal access to better schooling. In 1939, parents and educators appeared before the county’s school board, demanding a change in busing fees. At that time, white students rode their buses for free, while the parents of black children were forced to pay 25 cents per student, per day for transportation. When the board declined to address the iniquity, Dr. Norris took one of his most progressive and notorious stances.

Overnight, he organized every member of the black community in a complete boycott of the county school system. The following morning, as buses rolled around the county to pick up the children, not one black student stepped foot on a bus. This protest was so shocking, the school board immediately convened and within hours they capitulated. Years before busing was in the national spotlight, championed by famed civil rights leaders, Dr. Norris and his compatriots stood their ground and forced change.

In that moment, in that small county, the first fight for equal busing was won by a small-town doctor and the rural families that refused to let their children be treated as second-class citizens because of their color. Many years later, when his lifetime achievements were memorialized, it was said of Dr. Norris that: “Long before it was fashionable to think black, buy black and support black, this man gave his all to help advance the cause of the black man

Throughout his life, Dr. Norris continued to break boundaries. He was the second black man to serve on the Board of Trustees at Hampton Institute. Dr. Norris founded the Northern Neck Progressive Association, was appointed as coroner of Lancaster County, and served as Chairman of the Better Health Committee of the Negro Organization Society. He was also a charter member of the Rappahannock Medical Society.

Dr. Norris’ faith and devotion to his church, Calvary Baptist in Kilmarnock, was the bedrock upon which he relied through his numerous trials. He served as a deacon and in various other capacities for his beloved parish. Many of his children and grandchildren took on his mantle as well, many becoming pioneers in their various fields, including medicine — with more than one of his descendants becoming acclaimed doctors themselves. In 2009, his son, Dr. James E. C. Norris, penned Fight On, My Soul — a deeply moving account of his father’s life and legacy.

Dr. Norris died on May 18, 1966, at the age of 83, and not one day of those many years did he stop his fight for equality. That same year, the school that bore his name was closed and sold by the county, but that did not erase his legacy. Although the building where he practiced, which had fallen into disrepair, was demolished in 1990 by the family, the lives he saved and the footprint he left in his fight for medical care remains steadfast.

In 1971, Kilmarnock town officials proclaimed that July 31 be designated as Morgan E. Norris Day and on February 23, 1991, his portrait was hung in the Lancaster County Circuit Court House in honor of Dr. Norris’ countless contributions to the region, including his life’s work as a civil rights advocate and pioneer in the medical field.

In the biography of his father, Dr. James E. C. Norris perhaps best described his father’s life by saying: “When barriers were raised and obstacles thrown, his modus operandi would be first to try to wend his way around them, and failing that, to blast them down!”

Dr. Morgan E. Norris was more than just the first black doctor on the Northern Neck. He was greater than his tremendous deeds as a civil rights leader, and he was bigger than any monument that can be erected. He wasn’t defined by his race; he drew strength from it and challenged others to take pride in themselves as equal children of God. He was, quite simply, a great man.