Donna Brazile, a Democratic political operative who served as Norton’s chief of staff for 10 years and considers her a personal hero, cackled during a phone interview while recalling her boss’s capacity for fury. Once, she said, Norton complained that Brazile was pushing her too hard with a packed schedule.
“She said I was a white slave owner the way I drove her and the staff,” Brazile said. “She could cuss you out while chewing bubble gum.”
Hanging on the kitchen wall in Norton’s Capitol Hill rowhouse is a framed illustration of a burly African American woman who resembles Aunt Jemima, as captured on the cover of a 1940 Saturday Evening Post. The portrait is there, Norton said, to remind her that “that’s the America I was born into.”
A few feet away, in another frame on another wall, is her great-grandparents’ 1872 marriage certificate. Her great-grandfather, Richard Holmes, was a slave who walked off a Virginia plantation and made his way to the District. Her grandfather was among Washington’s first African American firefighters.
“I am deep D.C.,” Norton said.
Her parents were Roosevelt Democrats; her father was a law school graduate who worked for the city’s housing department, and her mother was a teacher. The oldest of their three daughters, Norton was her parents’ enforcer.
“She was in charge and very definite about what the rules were,” said her sister, Portia Shields, president of Tennessee State University. Norton, she recalled, would report her and their youngest sister to their parents if they misbehaved. “She was the model of authority.”
Norton grew up in segregated Washington — not the kind of city with “Colored Only” signs, but one in which blacks knew where they could and could not go. In 1954, she was a junior at all-black Dunbar High School when the principal announced on the intercom that the Supreme Court had ruled on Brown v. Board of Education and had outlawed segregation. Her teachers, she said, wept.
Norton attended Antioch College and joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, participating in sit-ins and traveling to Mississippi, where she worked with Medgar Evers. Hours before Evers was assassinated in his driveway on June 12, 1963, he drove Norton to a bus depot, where she set out for the Delta.
“It just froze me,” she said, recalling when she learned the next day of Evers’s death.
Two months later, Norton, working under Bayard Rustin, helped organize the March on Washington, at which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.