Thomasina Johnson Norford (1908-2002)

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Thomasina Johnson (later, Norford) was a noted civil rights activist and leader in the Democratic Party during the latter part of the New Deal, World War II and the postwar era.

Thomasina was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on March 24, 1908, to Newton W. and Theopa Durham Walker [1]. Her childhood and young adult years were spent in many different places, “Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Boarding School, South Carolina, Boston [2]” and she received her college degree from the University of Pennsylvania. After college, Thomasina taught for two years at Bordentown, a boarding school for African Americans in New Jersey, and then married “well-known singer T. Henry Johnson of Boston” [3]. 

Sometime in the 1930s, Thomasina’s husband became ill with cancer (he would die in 1942) and she realized that she would need to re-enter the workforce. When she went to obtain a teacher’s license, however, she was told that the Boston Board of Education did not allow married women to teach. This incident of discrimination sparked a career in activism: “I decided that I’d get into politics and try to change this kind of situation. I suppose that was the beginning of my rebellion” [4].

And quite a rebellion it was. Johnson was instrumental in expanding African American employment opportunities in Boston [5] and was hired as a lobbyist for Alpha Kappa Alpha, a prominent Black sorority that realized African Americans needed more influence in the halls of Congress.  Johnson thus became one of the first African American lobbyists in the United States, and one with enormous impact at a key time, when the Civil Rights movement accelerated during the Second World War [6].

“Between 1941 and 1946, Thomasina Johnson became a familiar witness in federal hearings… Johnson weighed in on a range of issues that affected African Americans across the country, including low-cost housing, the expansion of Social Security to all workers, the creation of a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, the equal distribution of funds for childcare, government funding for hospitals, a federal school lunch program, and the creation of the United Nations, about which she spoke eloquently of the need for decolonization in Africa… her legacy is apparent in volume after volume of federal hearings” [7].

Johnson’s legislative activities, her membership in numerous social clubs, and her seemingly endless talent—“she can sew, crochet, is an excellent hairdresser and a stenographer… qualified to translate Spanish and to teach both Spanish and chemistry” [8]—led to descriptions such as “energetic,” “young human dynamo,” and “legislative dynamo” [9].

In September 1944, Johnson took a break from lobbying when she was appointed Director of Special Groups for the Democratic National Committee, charged with securing the African American vote for President Franklin Roosevelt’s re-election bid [10]. She “felt that Roosevelt was better than anyone else at that point [in] time” and praised FDR when he approved a plan—her plan—to admit African American women in the WAVES and SPARS, the female service components of the Navy and Coast Guard during World War II [11].

After the war, Johnson took on many other important roles. In 1946 she became the “chief of Minority Group Services of the U.S. Employment Service in Washington, D.C., thereby becoming the highest paid colored [African American] woman in Federal service” [12]. Also in 1946, she became a member of the Consumer Advisory Committee of the U.S. Office of Price Administration [13].

Johnson re-married in 1949, to playwright and television executive George E. Norford [14]. She continued to be a much sought-after speaker and lecturer, and a force for African American civil rights for many years [15].

Thomasina Johnson Norford passed away on July 28, 2002 [16]. Though she is not well-known today, she was an absolute giant in the civil and human rights movements of the late New Deal era and beyond.

SOURCES

(1) Oral history interview of Thomasina Norford, conducted by Robert Martin, August 19, 1968, p. 1 (Ralph Bunche Oral History Collection, Howard University); “Thomasina W. Johnson To Lobby For AKA Sorority,” The Pittsburgh Courier, September 12, 1942, p. 10; Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014, available at Ancestry.com (subscription required). (2) Oral history interview of Thomasina Norford, conducted by Robert Martin, August 19, 1968, pp. 1-2 (Ralph Bunche Oral History Collection, Howard University).  (3) “Thomasina W. Johnson To Lobby For AKA Sorority,” The Pittsburgh Courier, September 12, 1942, p. 10.  (4) See note 2, pp. 3-4.  (5) See note 3.  (6) See, e.g., Charlotte Crump Poole, “The National Non-Partisan Council of Public Affairs of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority,” The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Spring 1944), pp. 238-242.  (7) Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy, Jim Crow Capital: Women and Black Freedom Struggles in Washington, D.C., 1920-1945, University of North Carolina Press, 2018, p. 194.  (8) See note 3.  (9) See note 3, and also, “TOKI types: About People Here and There,” The Pittsburgh Courier, May 19, 1945, p. 10.  (10) See note 2, p. 29, and also, “Mrs. Johnson Gets Demo Post,” The Weekly Review (Birmingham, Alabama), September 23, 1944, p. 1.  (11) See note 2, pp. 29-35, and also “President Roosevelt Approves Navy’s Plan to Enlist Negro Women As WAVES and SPARS,” The New York Age, October 28, 1944, p. 1.  (12) “Women’s Achievements for 1946 Are Brilliant; Feminine Contingent Excels in All Fields,” The Pittsburgh Courier, January 4, 1947, p. 8.  (13) “Thomasina Johnson on OPA Committee,” California Eagle (Los Angeles, California), January 24, 1946, p. 5.  (14) “TOKI types: About People Here and There,” The Pittsburgh Courier, August 6, 1940, p. 8; “TOKI types: About People Here and There,” The Pittsburgh Courier, August 3, 1968, p. 11; and “Thomasina Norford Is Glamorous Guest of Pittsburgh Girl Friends,” The Pittsburgh Courier, March 29, 1952, p. 8.  (15) See, e.g., “Thomasina Norford Talks At NCNW Founders Day Fete,” The Pittsburgh Courier, December 26, 1959, p. 16. (16) See note 1, Social Security Death Index.

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