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Norris Community focus of black history preservation project

By Jasmin Brown
On March 2, 2010

Texas A&M University-Commerce has partnered with the Converging Literacies Center (CLiC) in a black history preservation project focused on Commerce's
Norris Community.

Located in northeast Commerce, the Norris Community was organized in the 1890s within city limits as an all-black community, and remained home to the majority of the city's black population during much of the 20th century.

Associate English professor Dr. Shannon Carter is co-director of CLiC at A&M-Commerce. According to Carter, CLiC is a research institute in its developmental stages designed to bring together community and graduate level university researchers to "understand writing in a broader more active context."

Carter's research centers on local literacies and activist projects with historically oppressed minorities. The deciding factor in Carter's decision to become involved in the Norris Community's history was a suggestion made by the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Christine Evans.

Evans suggested that the various disciplines within her college encourage students to study the community in the contexts of environmental science, political science and history.

A&M-Commerce University Archivist Dr. James Conrad become involved with the Norris Community about a year ago by partnering with Carter and CLiC to preserve local black history.

"I've lived here quite a while and I knew there was a Norris Community, but knew very little about it," Conrad said. "I probably am like a lot of whites in this area. I knew it was there, I knew that's where the blacks lived, but I knew very little about its history.

"I got interested in the community and she (Carter) got interested in it from the viewpoint of trying to understand what the relationship was between the university and the Norris Community."

Carter said she and Conrad's research has helped her understand race relations in Commerce during the 1970s especially, as they pertained to the university, which was then East Texas State University (ETSU), the Norris Community and the Commerce City Council.

"We're learning something about what an incredible challenge it was for the community to get a voice on the city council and the mainstream population more generally," she said.
"This sort of becomes a really interesting kind of microcosmic moment to understand things that were happening everywhere, and things that happened in very particular ways in this town that happened to have a university…It's like this seismic shift of a moment."

According to Conrad, after ETSU's desegregation took place during 1965-1966, blacks from the Norris Community began attending the university, which began hiring black faculty members in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

The Norris Community Club (NCC) was formed in 1975 by community leaders to establish a channel of proactive communication among community residents, the city council and ETSU. According to Carter, black ETSU students were instrumental in the early successes of the NCC.

"They're very clear that this is a community organization not a student one, yet it had its origins in interactions with the students – students who recognized the need for a chartered organization to give a voice to the Norris Community," she said. "It was the students who made sure that voice was happening."

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter at ETSU was also instrumental in "making improvements and opening up opportunities" for residents of the Norris Community according to Conrad.

Ivory Moore became ETSU's first black administrator in 1972 as the first director of minority affairs, and was a leading mediator between the community and the
city council as the first black mayor of Commerce.

Among the accomplishments made by the NCC during the 1970s were street improvements and installation of modern sewage and water systems.

"I guess the thing that I'm learning the most from studying this is that race is incredibly complicated and that they were able to make these inroads in the '70s in a complex situation," Carter said. "It's just this delightful kind of mix of understanding of the evolution of race relations over time."

In order to reinstate its charter, the NCC changed its name to the Progressive Community Club (PCC) in 2004 and was modeled after the ideals of the NCC. However, Carter pointed out that black students, and students in general, are not as involved in the community's affairs as they were 30 years ago.

"There hasn't maybe been that kind of commitment to the issues from the students since," she said. "I ask students all of the time, but this (PCC) is new to people, nobody really knows."

Yet, Mt. Moriah Temple Baptist Church, the largest and oldest church in the Norris Community, remains a link between the community and A&M-Commerce students.
Conrad said that according to community leader and Mt. Moriah member Harry Turner, approximately 80 percent of the church's membership is comprised of black A&M-Commerce students, who represent a "continuous connection" between the community and the university.

Through CLiC, Carter and Conrad have been conducting oral history interviews with various Norris Community leaders including Moore and Turner.

"Because we have a new media emphasis in our writing, we were able to develop a number of video projects with the Norris Community," Carter said. "Underway right now is a pretty ambitious documentary about the Norris Community."

Previews and raw video of the interviews are available for viewing at convergingliteraciescenter.wordpress.com.

"We'll have it in DVD format and we'll also publish it online," Carter said. "It'll probably be about an hour long."

According to Carter, the state of Texas has approved a historical marker for the Mt. Moriah church which will likely be installed this fall, which is why she hopes the documentary will be ready for inclusion in that celebration.

"We hope it will come out by the end of the semester," she said. "That's our goal."


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