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F. S. Norton (d. 1893)

F. S. Norton, one of three brothers elected to the General Assembly, served one term in the House of Delegates (1869–1871) and later sat on Williamsburg's city council (by 1879–1882). Born enslaved, he represented James City County and Williamsburg from 1869 until 1871, during which time he voted with the majority to ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution as required by Congress before Virginia could be readmitted to the United States. Norton often differed politically from the Yorktown-based brothers, Daniel M. Norton and Robert Norton. He embraced Radical Republicanism in the 1860s while his brothers were more sympathetic with the Conservative Party. They all later joined the Readjuster Party, but he withdrew and supported the Republicans against his brothers. He identified himself as a Democrat in his later years. Norton died of unknown causes at his Williamsburg home in 1893. MORE...

 

Early Years

Frederick Smith Norton was born into slavery late in the 1820s in or near Williamsburg. The names of his parents are not recorded, but he came from a mixed-race background, possibly the son of an enslaved woman and her owner. His two brothers, younger by more than a decade, Daniel M. Norton and Robert Norton, escaped from slavery in Virginia to freedom in New York during the middle of the 1850s. Whether F. S. Norton, as he was often identified, or F. Smith Norton, as he signed his will in the 1880s, gained his freedom before 1865 is uncertain because little is recorded about him before 1869. He married a woman named Frances Ann, surname unknown, and had a son by 1870.

Soon after the end of the American Civil War (1861–1865), Norton's brothers returned to Virginia, became active in York County politics, and formed the Lone Star, a beneficial organization for freedmen. Daniel M. Norton won election to and served in the Convention of 1867–1868 that wrote a new state constitution. All three brothers ran for office in 1869. Daniel M. Norton lost a race for Congress, but on July 6, 1869, Robert Norton won a seat in the House of Delegates. On the same day and by a margin of about two-to-one, F. S. Norton defeated Republican Charles Wilson Buttz, a white native of Pennsylvania and future congressman from South Carolina, to win the seat in the House of Delegates representing Williamsburg and James City County. Buttz challenged the result on the grounds that Norton's name was really Frederick Smith and some voters may not have known for whom they were voting, but the House of Delegates seated Norton with the understanding that the district's voters realized that he was known by both names.

In State and Local Government

At a short session of the General Assembly that met in October 1869, Norton voted to ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution as required by Congress before Virginia could be readmitted to the United States. He served on the Committee of Claims during his single two-year term. During the second session, he introduced two bills that did not pass, one to ban hunting of deer between September 1 and January 1, and the other to regulate payment of debts created before the collapse of the Confederacy in April 1865. He joined the other African American members in calling for the expulsion of William H. Andrews, an African American who was an alcoholic, after he struck a House page with a whip, but the delegates reprimanded Andrews, instead. In 1870 the General Assembly approved a bill creating the state's first public school system. Fighting to secure their equal rights of citizenship, Norton and most of the other African American delegates had attempted to strike out the requirement that schools be racially segregated. After their proposal was overwhelmingly defeated, he joined other bold legislators in casting a symbolic vote against passage of the school bill that he almost certainly favored. Norton voted in March 1871 for the Funding Act to pay off the antebellum public debt at 6 percent interest. When a bill to redistrict seats in the assembly was before the House on March 14 of that year, Norton asked for the vote to be recorded. It was an important matter to him because the bill, which passed, merged his district with Robert Norton's.

The three Nortons participated in Republican Party meetings and conventions in 1869, but they did not always agree about politics. F. S. Norton may have been more sympathetic to the radical members of the party than his brothers were. At the state convention in November, the delegates selected white men for all eight vice presidents, leading him to complain that African Americans were being brought into the party like a muskrat's tail, from behind. In 1871 Robert Norton won the election in the new House district consisting of the counties of James City and York, and the following year they both attended the Republican Party's national convention, in Baltimore, with F. S. Norton as an alternate delegate.

Little information survives about Norton's life for the eight years after his legislative term concluded in 1871. By September 9, 1879, the earliest-surviving available record, he was a member of the Williamsburg City Council and won reelection in May 1880. The next year Norton voted to allow the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Company (later CSX Corporation) to lay track through the city, giving the community its first direct access to a railroad. He was not reelected in May of that year but won again in 1882. For unrecorded reasons, Norton resigned on October 12, 1882, on the date when a fight erupted in Williamsburg between competing factions of Republicans.

Later Years

Between Norton's term in the House of Delegates and his service on the Williamsburg City Council, the inability of the state to pay the interest and principal on its prewar debt had divided Virginia's people and political leaders. The interest payments and the tax-receivable character of the interest coupons on the bonds produced a series of budget deficits and depleted the funds available for the popular new public school system. The Readjuster Party, a biracial coalition founded in 1879, promised to reduce the principal and rate of interest in order to restore the cuts to the public school fund. Norton initially supported the party's agenda, even though he had voted for the Funding Act of 1871.

He was a member of the Committee on Business and Platform at the 1880 Readjuster State Convention and in March 1881 represented James City County and sat on the Committee on Credentials when African American Republicans met in Petersburg and decided to affiliate with the Readjusters. His two brothers also supported the Readjusters and developed strong ties to the party's leader, William Mahone. In 1882, though, Norton endorsed the so-called Straightout Republicans who refused to join the Readjusters or support their full reform agenda in the legislature, and he predicted that Straightout candidate, John Montgomery Dawson, would poll strongly in the region in that year's contest for the House of Representatives. The following year, he nominated Dawson to run against his own brother for the state senate, a three-way race that Daniel Norton won. The Democrats won control of the General Assembly from the coalition of Readjusters and Republicans, however, with a race-baiting campaign. Two weeks later at a Williamsburg rally, F. S. Norton offered a resolution congratulating the Democrats as he moved toward affiliating with the Democratic Party.

From March 7, 1882, until January 1, 1885, Norton held a gubernatorial appointment as a curator of the fund for Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University), whose members had responsibility for overseeing the use of money paid annually to the school from the federal land-grant educational fund. In 1885 he chaired the Committee on Credentials at a convention of African Americans who opposed the Republicans after Mahone merged the Republican and Readjuster parties. At the time of Norton's death, a Williamsburg newspaper reported that he considered himself a Democrat. Norton worked as a shoemaker and owned a house and lot in Williamsburg and twenty-three acres of land in York County. Battling sickness toward the end of his life, he signed his will on November 9, 1888. Norton died of unknown causes at his Williamsburg home on November 14, 1893. The place of his burial is not known.

Time Line

  • Late 1820s - F. S. Norton is born into slavery in or near Williamsburg.
  • July 6, 1869 - F. S. Norton wins election to the House of Delegates representing Williamsburg and James City County. He serves a single term.
  • By 1870 - F. S. Norton and a woman named Frances Ann, surname unknown, marry.
  • March 1871 - F. S. Norton votes for the Funding Act to pay off the antebellum public debt at 6 percent interest.
  • July 9–10, 1872 - Brothers Robert Norton and F. S. Norton both attend the Republican National Convention, in Baltimore.
  • September 9, 1879 - By this date, F. S. Norton is a member of the Williamsburg City Council.
  • 1880 - F. S. Norton is a member of the committee on Business and Platform at the Readjuster Party State Convention.
  • May 1880 - F. S. Norton wins reelection to the Williamsburg City Council.
  • 1881 - As a member of the Williamsburg City Council, F. S. Norton votes to allow the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Company to lay track through the city.
  • March 14, 1881 - F. S. Norton represents James City County at a convention of African American Republicans in Petersburg.
  • March 7, 1882–January 1, 1885 - F. S. Norton serves as a curator of the fund for Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute.
  • October 12, 1882 - F. S. Norton resigns his seat on the Williamsburg City Council for unknown reasons.
  • 1885 - F. S. Norton serves as a delegate to a convention of African Americans who oppose the Republicans after the party merged with the Readjusters.
  • November 9, 1888 - F. S. Norton signs his will.
  • November 14, 1893 - F. S. Norton dies of unknown causes at his Williamsburg home.

References

Further Reading
Jackson, Luther Porter. Negro Office-Holders in Virginia, 1865–1895. Norfolk, Virginia: Guide Quality Press, 1945.
Lowe, Richard G. Republicans and Reconstruction in Virginia, 1856–70. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991.
Moore, James Tice. Two Paths to the New South: The Virginia Debt Controversy, 1870–1883. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1974.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Gottlieb, M. S., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. F. S. Norton (d. 1893). (2015, February 13). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Norton_F_S_d_1893.

  • MLA Citation:

    Gottlieb, Matthew S. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "F. S. Norton (d. 1893)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 13 Feb. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: February 6, 2015 | Last modified: February 13, 2015


Contributed by Matthew S. Gottlieb and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Matthew S. Gottlieb is assistant editor of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography at the Library of Virginia.