Black History Month Salute!

Published 6:05 pm Thursday, February 29, 2024

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EURE – Other than attending college and finding employment, Edna Williams Norfleet hasn’t spent much of her 96 years on Earth outside of her native Gates County.

And that’s just fine by her as she feels similar to the main character in the “Wizard of Oz” – there’s no place like home.

Born Sept. 22, 1927, she was raised by her parents, George and Annie Ballard Williams, in a tenant house on the Askew farm, near where she lives today. There were 10 children, all of whom have passed on except for Edna.

“The Askew family was mighty good to me and my family,” she said. “By the time I was born, some of my older brothers and sisters were married and moved away.”

“There won’t no color shown that I could see at that time; the white folks treated my family with respect and we were taught to treat them with respect,” Norfleet remembered. “Those same families love me just as good now. They’ll stop by with food they fixed at home or purchased a plate at a fundraiser.”

She recalled a time when Allen Askew ran a country store.

“My mother wouldn’t go nowhere but to that store,” she said. “So one day, there was a new clerk at the counter who wouldn’t let mama have any credit. Allen Askew was in the back (of the store) cutting meat. He stopped, came to the counter and looked that clerk in the eye and said, ‘when Aunt Annie comes in here and wants anything, let her have it.’

“I had to hold the tears back because of what Mr. Askew thought of my mother,” Norfleet continued. “I still love the Askew family today.”

She doesn’t recall if any of her ancestors were slaves.

“I’m certain they were, but I don’t have anything to show me they were slaves,” she said.

As a child, she attended Ballard’s School, a one-room schoolhouse that was adjacent to the present-day Ballard’s Grove Baptist Church. The church remains there, but the school building no longer stands.

“I had a lot of great mentors at that school,” Norfleet stressed.

Rumbling through a file of keepsake items, Norfleet pulled out a well-worn small card, yellowed with age, containing information that showed she attended that school from the first through the seventh grades, ending May 14, 1941, and was promoted to the eighth grade.

One of her teachers, Malcolm Dey, signed the card.

She recalled the names of her other teachers at Ballard’s School: Mollie Jackson Owens Hayes, Isaac Greene, John Wells, Adell Coston, Lydia Harrell, and Essie Riddick.

She walked to Ballard’s School. All the children of that particular community, approximately 15 during her time there, would gather on weekdays, huddled around a pot-belly stove for warmth in the winter, to receive their education.

Norfleet recalled bringing a “lunch bucket” to school, which was placed on a shelf until it was time to eat.

“Herring, sausage, clabber biscuits, sweet potatoes, and molasses cake are the things I remember being in my lunch bucket,” she said.

The restrooms were outside, one each for the boys and girls.

Norfleet said she was praised for her “singing voice” at Ballard School.

“They had a field day in Sunbury and our school went. I sang lead alto in a lullaby and we won the first prize,” she stated. “Mr. Greene was our music teacher.”

From Ballard’s, Norfleet attended high school (back then, grades 8-11) at Gates Training School, which is now T.S. Cooper Elementary School near Sunbury. T.S. Cooper was her principal.

“I rode Bus 42,” said Norfleet, recalling how she got to and from Gates Training School. “I didn’t drive myself there because my family didn’t have a car.”

Prior to the county offering transportation for Blacks to attend Gates Training School, families would have to make arrangements for their children to board with a family living in the general vicinity of the school. If they couldn’t afford that, education ended for those students at the various church-sponsored schools in the county.

She remembered hearing the news of the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor.

“They told us while we were walking into the schoolhouse the next morning (Dec. 8, 1941),” Norfleet noted. “We didn’t hear about it when it happened because we didn’t have a radio in our house.”

Norfleet graduated from Gates Training School on May 13, 1945.

Gates Training School was a Rosenwald School, educational facilities built primarily for African-American students living in southern states. Those schools were partially funded through a partnership formed by Julius Rosenwald, a Jewish-American clothier who became part-owner and president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, and the African-American leader, educator, and philanthropist Booker T. Washington, who was president of the Tuskegee Institute. Using funding obtained through Farmer’s Bank of Sunbury, the Gates County Board of Education signed off on the construction of seven Rosenwald Schools in the county. Gates Training School served as the only high school for Blacks at that time.

After graduation, Norfleet found employment as a

domestic worker.

“I washed clothes back when all we had was a wash pot, hanging them outside, and folding ‘em up when they got dry,” Norfleet recalled, saying a day’s work netted her $4, which also covered her labor performing other household chores.

“I worked for white folks for years and they treated me just fine. I’ve got no complaints,” Norfleet added.

By the time she landed a job at the Sunbeam factory in Ahoskie in the 1960’s – a company specializing in manufacturing electrical appliances for the home – Norfleet laughed and said, “I got much more than just four dollars a day.”

She worked there for approximately 12 years.

Later in life, Norfleet received an Associate’s Degree in 1978 as a Nursing Assistant from her two years of study at Roanoke-Chowan Technical Institute (now Roanoke-Chowan Community College) and took a few courses at the College of the Albemarle in 1984.

She worked as a trainee at Roanoke-Chowan Hospital and then served as a volunteer at the nursing home in Gatesville.

“I’ve always wanted to help folks,” Norfleet said with a wide grin. “Families would call me in to sit with someone who had some health issues. I enjoyed that.”

After that, more or less, Norfleet was a stay at home wife and mother of two children….or in her words: “an educated housewife” and was a regular worshiper at Ballard’s Grove Baptist Church. She was baptized there at the age of 13.

Her husband, Vernon C. Norfleet, a Battle of the Bulge veteran for the U.S. Army in World War II, died at the age of 91 on Sept. 11, 2013. Their son, Robert, is a retired Chemistry teacher from Gates County High School. Their daughter, Vivian Majette, is deceased.

Mrs. Norfleet has five grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

Now, she lives a quiet life along NC 37 between Eure and Gatesville. It’s a life that’s been well spent and in her words, “still all about loving people and treating them right because as the Bible says you reap what you sow.”

Children and young adults of today need to tap into this sort of valuable history before it disappears.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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