#TBT - Meet Isham Norris, 118 years ago ran for Seattle City Council and fought racist housing laws.
Updated: Nov 21, 2019
Isham was an all around bad ass from Tennessee who moved to Seattle with his family, started a successful business, became involved in politics, was a supporter of his community, and created a legacy along the way.
The #TBT series is a collaboration between the Black Heritage Society of Washington State and Africatown Seattle to give historical insights and perspectives into Black history and Black contributions in the Seattle area and Washington State as a whole.
The Back Story
Isham Franklin Norris (October 15, 1851 – September 23, 1928) was a young black man in 1880 Tennessee who pursued his interest in politics to be elected to represent Shelby County in the 42nd Tennessee General Assembly. While there he focused much of his legislative energy on trying to overturn Tennessee’s first Jim Crow law. Norris lost his second bid for office in 1882 as the result of a smear campaign. He remained close to the legislators with whom he had previously worked and in 1884 he attended the Tennessee Convention to support resolutions that were submitted to address the egregious and persistent prejudice against blacks.
Stella Rosa Butler Norris (1863-1946) was married to Isham Norris in 1886. Prior to her marriage, Stella lived with her cousin Ida B. Wells in Memphis where they both were teaching school. The cousins were close, and when the Norris’s’ made a decision in 1892 to quickly leave Tennessee given the threat on their business and the lynching of three African American grocers in Memphis, Wells joined them. During the Tennessee turmoil, Wells was publishing a series of anti-lynching editorials in her newspaper and was encouraging African Americans to relocate to Oklahoma where the territory was opening to settlers. A mob stormed and destroyed her Memphis newspaper office but not her determined fight for human rights and justice. In Oklahoma, Wells would continue to report on issues of the day that were relevant to the African American struggle and after a few months she moved to Chicago, where she embarked on the speaking tour that made her a national figure.
The Norris’s’ would live in Oklahoma for nearly ten years. Isham and Stella resumed the grocer business and farming; they had four children. Once again, warranted fears arose regarding vigilante violence against African Americans and the Norris Family decided to move on, this time north to Seattle.
Settling in Seattle
Seattle was still a frontier for those seeking to carve out a life and establish roots. In Seattle, between 1900 and 1910, the number of blacks had risen from 406 to 2,300. The Norris Family first appears in local news articles beginning in 1905 and then in 1910 they appeared in the census.
Isham Norris owned a trucking business called the Southern Transfer Moving Company and operated a livery stable. Records document that by 1910 he had paid off the mortgage on their home at 535 Federal Avenue East, indicating that he was making a comfortable living. Stella had a fifth child in 1908 after the move to Washington. At the time of the 1910 census, the two oldest boys, Ira (22) and Percy (20) were working at the transfer company, and the two middle boys were in school. A niece, Ellen Harris (13), a Tennessee native was also living with them.
The Norris’s’ would have known Horace and Susie Cayton, owners/publishers of the Republican Newspaper who were also Capitol Hill residents.
Living on Seattle’s Capitol Hill presented its challenges. In 1909, six years after the purchase of their house, the Cayton’s fought a hard fight to keep their home by mounting a successful legal defense against a white real estate agent who filed a lawsuit claiming that their presence had reduced property values in the neighborhood. Racial covenants and malicious campaigns to keep black people from residing and buying homes in affluent white neighborhoods was common. Many of these covenants remained on the books in Seattle and surrounding neighborhoods up to the 1960s.
Norris continued to participate in political activities after the move to Seattle. He presided over a Republican voter rally in February 1908 and was elected president of the Afro-American Club for at least two terms. In 1911 he ran for city council. Norris was on a committee to entertain “colored sailors in the Pacific Fleet” during World War I, and he helped organize dances, ball games (at least two of the Norris sons played in a Negro baseball league), boxing matches, and street carnivals. He chaired the Colored Roosevelt Memorial Association, a committee raising funds for a monument to Theodore Roosevelt.
In the 1920 census, Isham Norris (68) was working as a stockman for the Black Manufacturing Company founded in 1914 to manufacture Black Bear overalls ( in 1987 the city council designated the building a Seattle Landmark.)
By1930, Stella was widowed and living with her sons. The 1930 census accounts for Carl and Claudius as Seattle policemen; Wendell and Percy were stevedores, and Ira’s name was missing from that census. Stella Rosa Butler Norris died in Seattle on June 10, 1946, almost 20 years after her husband. She was 73 years old.
According to Washington state death records, Isham F. Norris died in Seattle on September 23, 1928, at the age of 74 years. After a funeral service conducted by Bonney-Watson Funeral Home, his body was cremated. Having moved far away from the crushing effects of Southern Jim Crow laws, the Norris family lived busy and productive lives in Seattle.
The archives at the Black Heritage Society of Washington State (BHS) are a public asset that is managed by the Collections Committee. The collections team welcomes your inquiries regarding the archives and your interest in preserving the legacy of black people in Washington State.
-Black Heritage Society of Washington State, Inc., Seattle, WA
-This Honorable Body, African American Legislators in the 19th Century, Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville, Tennessee