The other side of the tracks and the hole, these are just a few of the things that the Norris Community of Commerce has been negatively referred to over the years. This community is a constant story of difficulties, coming together, and overcoming obstacles. Since the 1890s this community has been home to a large African American population. Several institutions and groups are critical to the story of the Norris Community. Among these are the Mt. Moriah Temple Baptist Church, the Norris School, and the Norris Community Club.
Mt. Moriah has a long history stretching back to its founding in 1896. From its inception the church was a major supporter of the Norris community. The church hosted clothing drives, food drives, and in the 1960s the church served as a meeting location and also hosted many candidate forums.
The Norris School opened in 1910. From its creation to 1953 the school taught grades 1 – 10 with many students that wanted to continue their education moving on the nearby St. Paul School. The school expanded and offered more programs following the hiring of A.C. Williams. In 1953 money was raised for a new school building and gymnasium. This addition was in no small part due to the strong athletic program offered at the Norris School specifically a powerhouse basketball program. The school would become part of Commerce ISD in 1960 and in 1965 the process of integration had begun with full desegregation occurring in 1966.
With desegregation occurring in the city’s public schools there was also desegregation at East Texas State University. In the late 1960s African American attendance at the university was also met with the hiring of several African American faculty members.
The Norris Community Club (NCC), founded in 1973, was a group of Commerce citizens and university students who realized that the best way to achieve progress was to establish communication between the African American population, the city of Commerce, and officials at East Texas State. More so than simple communication, the NCC sought to improve the conditions in the Norris Community. Drainage issues during rain storms led to the roads in Norris being in terrible condition. The NCC led voter registration drives and pushed for improvements in roads, plumbing, and improved lighting.
These groups may have existed separately but nothing exists in a vacuum. The Norris Community Club would hold meetings at Mt. Moriah. Many of the leading African American community leaders who would step forward to champion the Norris Community were tied to several of these groups. Ivory Moore, the first black administrator at the university was a founding member of the Norris Community Club and would go on to be elected as the first African American mayor of Commerce and would put a focus on infrastructure improvements to the Norris Community. Then there are individuals like Harry Turner. Turner was in one of the last classes to graduate from the Norris School and would become one of the first African American students at East Texas State. Turner would also go on to serve as a deacon at Mt. Moriah.
These groups are amazing examples of cooperation and community leadership as they still continue their missions today. While the Norris School may had been closed its legacy of education can still be seen in the community leaders. Mt. Moriah Temple Baptist Church is still going strong and remains a link between the community and A&M University-Commerce. The Norris Community Club did go through a rebranding in 2004 when it became the Progressive Community Club but it was modeled after the ideals of the NCC.
This kind of community activism and resilience in the face of adversity is something more communities should aspire to and it is just the kind of story you hear frequently when traveling the Backroads of Northeast Texas.