The sum of Xanthene Norris’ life is displayed in her sitting room.
Tabletops cluttered with grade-school photographs, wedding portraits and civic awards framed by the window.
“The Lord has blessed me because I never said no; I always found a way,” Norris says from her tidy brick home of 60 years in Greenville’s Nicholtown community.
Never say no. It’s a motto that has shaped her life, nearly of all of which has been spent in education and public service.
Norris, 90, is serving her fifth and last term on Greenville County Council after being elected to the District 23 seat in 1997.
As an educator, she taught generations of students as a French teacher at Sterling High School, then as a guidance counselor at Greenville High. Her pupils have included the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., Greenville Mayor Knox White, Greenville City Councilman Russell Stall and state Rep. Chandra Dillard.
“There’s a quality about her,” says Dillard, who’s known Norris all of her life. “She wants excellence from the people she works with, and she’s not afraid of tough issues. She realizes that when a door closes, it doesn’t mean it’s locked forever. You just have to find a different door.”
The teacher and guidance counselor
Born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Norris grew up in Greenville’s Southernside and attended segregated schools. Her father worked for the railroad company before finding employment as an elevator operator at The Greenville News. Her mother was a schoolteacher.
“We were able to live another life,” Norris says of segregation.
She attended Sterling High School, where she worked on the yearbook staff and graduated valedictorian of her class.
Her college years were spent in Atlanta, which Norris says was the place to be at the time.
The city then was a convergence of young educated blacks who came from all over the country to attend the many black colleges in the area, which included Spelman, Morehouse and Clark, where Norris studied French and social studies.
She came back to Greenville after graduation and got a job teaching at Sterling.
There, Norris would teach or mentor some of Greenville’s most famed civil rights activists, working closely with the Rev. James S. Hall Jr., vice president of the South Carolina NAACP, to counsel a young Jesse Jackson and other members of the “Greenville Eight.”
“We governed those kids on how to act and get ready for the sit-ins,” Norris says.
The Greenville Eight would later help integrate Greenville’s public library, airport and the Woolworth’s lunch counter downtown.
The county councilwoman
In 1996, Norris was approached by several people who wanted her to run for County Council.
Norris was game — she was by then retired and widowed.
Dillard says the campaign was her first foray into politics and recalls going door to door with Norris.
“Every door that we knocked on she had either taught the person, their parents or their uncle or somebody,” Dillard says.
Norris won the Democratic primary easily, receiving 83% of the vote against the incumbent, H.M. Bowen, according to county election results.
In her 22 years on County Council, Norris has been known to be firm but never loud.
A 2006 Greenville News editorial endorsing Norris for reelection praised her as a quiet, effective leader.
“On more than one occasion during a contentious council debate, she has demonstrated her ability to make her point forcefully but without a hint of hostility,” the editorial read.
Part of Norris’ political legacy is her nearly decade-long fight to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a holiday in Greenville County. The issue grew into a movement that made national headlines. News outlets made sure to point out that Greenville County was the last county in the last state to adopt King holiday legislation.
County Council meetings were marked by protests in the months leading up to the vote.
In more than one meeting, Norris recalls seeing Confederate flags in the audience.
But Norris and County Councilwoman Lottie Gibson continued to champion the cause. Eventually Jesse Jackson would join the fight, leading a rally of 10,000 people in support of the holiday.
Norris was also part of a coalition of local civil rights activists who pushed to memorialize the site of the Willie Earle lynching in West Greenville in 2009.
That same year, Norris was honored with the Amy K. Stubbs Women of Achievement Award. It’s just one of the many honors that has been bestowed on Norris over the course of a long, distinguished career.
“She’s one of a kind and an icon in this community,” Dillard says. “Her life speaks to how one person, when they work with others, how they can be a force for good in so many things.”