GREENVILLE — At 93 years old, Xanthene Norris doesn’t move around like a whirlwind in high heels as she once did, but she still has that sparkle in her eye when she feels passionate about a topic.
The sparkle is there when she talks about her mom and dad, who she says inspired her life as an educator, civil rights advocate and public servant. The sparkle returns when she discusses the way some public officials have changed through the years, coming around on issues of race after Norris or her Mama “kicked some butts.”
It’s there again when she recalls the students she taught at Sterling High School before integration, and later at Greenville High School, as a guidance counselor or through her college preparatory program. Some of those include Greenville Mayor Knox White, council members Lillian Brock Flemming and Russell Stahl, and Alan Mitchell, who was elected to replace her on Greenville County Council in January.
Norris is stepping away from politics after 25 years serving District 23 on Greenville County Council, leaving a legacy of service and a lifetime of work in the community that’s now the responsibility of those she’s mentored.
“I just did things that I knew had to be done,” said Norris, speaking from the living room of her home in Nicholtown, where hundreds of pieces of ephemera, family portraits and awards encircle the room. “It was worth it. It was worth it. It wasn’t easy but it was worth it.”
Norris was born in Winston-Salem, N.C., and her family moved to Greenville when she was about 3 years old. Her mother taught at Sterling, the Black high school in Greenville before integration, and her father worked at the railroad and later as an elevator operator at The Greenville News.
Norris still recalls the moment when she understood Black people were treated as second-class citizens. She usually walked where she needed to go, but sometimes rode the bus. One time, the bus driver accused Norris of not paying her fare, though she put her coin in the slot. He told her to go to the back of the bus and slapped her, Norris said.
“I was horrified,” Norris said, that the man had falsely accused her and slapped her. She told her parents that night and her father went with her the next day to confront the driver. But when her father confronted the driver, he berated her father and told him to get to the back of the bus. Her father didn’t say much back, she remembers, and walked to the back of the bus.
“I was just so hurt that he wasn’t able to do anything,” Norris said.
That incident would preface her later involvement in the civil rights movement in Greenville.
Norris attended Sterling and graduated as valedictorian, then attended Clark College in Atlanta, where she sang in choir and met a student at nearby Morehouse College named Martin Luther King Jr.
Upon graduation, she said she wanted to stay in Atlanta because it was a hotbed for Black culture in the 1940s and ’50s, but she moved back to Greenville because she wanted to repay her parents for the sacrifices they made to educate her and send her to college.
She became a teacher and later earned a masters degree as one of the first Black female students at Furman University.
She chose the historic Springfield Baptist Church as her home church and soon became integral in the civil rights movement.
Springfield was the launchpad for the civil rights protests that eventually drove Greenville County’s integration. Norris helped plan logistics for many of the attempts to integrate Greenville, including marches down McBee Avenue to lunch counter sit-ins and the now-famous Greenville Eight that led the integration of the Greenville library. Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had been one of her students at Sterling, helped lead the library sit-in in 1960.
At the time, Norris said she took many of the cues for Greenville’s integration from work being done elsewhere, especially in Atlanta. Black leaders remained steadfast, despite heartbreaking challenges. As school integration ramped up in 1967, Sterling burned to the ground. The fire’s cause officially remains a mystery.
Norris, who was at Sterling the night of the fire, said the group decided they wouldn’t let it deter their efforts.
“We’re going to do for Greenville what we need to do,” she said they decided.
Schools integrated in Greenville in 1970. Two years later in 1972 Springfield caught fire, doing $650,000 in damage to the historic church. A painting of the church still hangs in Norris’ sitting room. The church was rebuilt and reopened in 1976.
While working for civil rights, Norris also worked to educate her community. She taught French at Sterling and later at Greenville High School, and created a college preparatory program run through Springfield. She helped students with preparation for taking the ACT and SAT tests and provided tutoring and guidance.
Today, she counts that as one of her greatest achievements, and one she still hears about frequently.
“When I see (former students) now, it’s like ‘Miss Norris, thank you. I wouldn’t have graduated from college without you,’” she said.
Among those she helped was Flemming, who has gone on to serve more than 40 years on Greenville City Council. Mitchell, who will now replace Norris as the council member for District 23, also received help from Norris, she said.
“He was mine,” she said with a smile.
State Rep. Chandra Dillard has known Norris her entire life, but formally knew her first as a guidance counselor at Greenville High.
“If she saw your potential, knew your interests, she’d do everything she could to kind of light the fire under those things,” Dillard said.
Norris planned Dillard’s entire summer before her senior year of school, sending her to Girls State and then to South Carolina State to gain college credits. It helped set the foundation for Dillard’s own political career.
Norris later helped Dillard write her first campaign speech.
Norris retired from a career in education in 1984 but continued to remain involved in education efforts and in community service.
She ran for political office for the first time in 1997, because “people asked me to do it.”
She was elected, and served alongside her good friend Lottie Gibson as two Black women on an overwhelmingly White male County Council.
As cities and counties across the United States began to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday, each time a Black council member in Greenville County raised the issue, it was struck down. The holiday had been recognized federally since 1983.
Norris, Gibson and Wade Cleveland worked together for years to get the county to designate MLK Jr. as a paid holiday. Four times, the council voted it down. But after turnover on the council, a sleep-in at County Square, and the dozens of times Jackson returned to Greenville, the council finally voted 8-5 in 2005 to recognize the holiday.
Greenville was the last county in the country to officially recognize MLK Day as a paid holiday.
“She is a very confident person and she is a very strong-willed person,” Flemming said. “It was difficult for her to take no for an answer.”
Among Norris’ other accomplishments on the council was work alongside Dillard and Flemming to bring a pedestrian bridge to the Southernside neighborhood. It restored connectivity across train tracks to the rest of Greenville after the Hampton Avenue bridge was torn down, secluding Southernside on a pedestrian island.
That was also nearly a 10-year process. The bridge opened in March 2020 and is named the Xanthene Sayles Norris Pedestrian Bridge.
Flemming called it a fitting tribute to the lengthy career of her friend and mentor.
“She worked hard to make sure she could do whatever she could for her community,” Flemming said.
Norris doesn’t plan to relax yet. She said she will remain involved with people who she’s known for decades in the community and will continue to do some work at Springfield.
“I’m happy,” she said, “because of what we were able to do.”