It was the summer of 1952 — two years before the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruled that state laws segregating public schools was unconstitutional, and three years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala.
And in a lunchroom at the campus of the University of Maryland, a white 17-year-old named Howard Norton was just offering a seat to a fellow American Legion Boys Nation senator whose skin was a different color.
“The people who were going to be in my (section), we were all sitting around this great big table. All of us were white,” Norton recalled. “… A young Black man walked up and introduced himself to the sponsor.”
Norton sensed that the sponsor wasn’t sure if he should tell the young man to sit down because of the array of backgrounds which those already sitting there were from. So Norton spoke up.
“I said to the fellow, ‘Hey, have a seat. Sit down and eat with us,’” Norton said.
“I don’t think I had ever before in my life eaten at the table with a Black person who was a peer. Unless you lived through those days, you don’t know the emotion that goes with that, the almost nervousness at the time — this is ’52. We just took him in,” he added.
Toward the end of their week in Maryland, the Boys Nation senators visited the Naval Academy, and Norton had an epiphany on the way back to their own campus.
“He and I were sitting next to each other toward the back of the bus. And we were having lots of fun, as guys do, we were singing a lot … all of a sudden, it dawned on me, ‘I am sitting next to a Black person,’ and I didn’t even realize it.
“I think that is one of the major things that I got out of Boys Nation, was an appreciation for the problems that were going on in America, but also how silly they were. That may not seem like a big deal, but it was a huge deal to me, and it changed my life,” he said.
“I have spent a big part of my life working with people whose skin was a different color from mine, whose language was a different (language) from mine,” said Norton, who would go on to spend the better part of 16 years in Brazil with his wife and children as missionaries for the Church of Christ. “And I thank the Lord for that experience. That I was sitting next to him, having the time of my life, not even realizing that I was sitting next to a Black person until it dawned on me.”
‘A blessing to my life’
Seventy years after his summer as governor of Texas Boys State and president of Boys Nation, Norton credited those weeks as “memorable, memorable landmarks in my history.”
“I’m very grateful to The American Legion for having that program. It’s really been a blessing to my life,” he said.
Even if, initially, Norton was reluctant to lose time at another summer camp to attend Boys State.
“I had a principal in high school who really liked me, and he could see potential and he knew of opportunities, and he shipped some of them my way. One day he came up to me and he told me that he had recommended me for Boys State. I didn’t know what Boys State was; I don’t know that I had ever heard of Boys State. I was in Fort Worth, and Boys State was in Austin. So there were a lot of things going on in Austin that I didn’t know about,” Norton said with a laugh.
“So I asked him questions about it, and he said, ‘It’s a good opportunity, and you really ought to go.’ Well, I was one of those guys that had to work in the summertime if I wanted to go to college in the fall, and so I had a job and I had a lot of things going. One of the things that I had going was that I was also in ROTC. ROTC had a camp near Mineral Wells, Texas, and I was company commander of my group at the ROTC camp, and I didn’t see how in the world I could go to Boys State and also go to the ROTC camp that I was committed to.”
At his principal’s urging, Norton requested and received permission to leave the ROTC camp for a week to go to Austin for Boys State.
“I had always been interested in school politics, and I was president of the student body in junior high, and president of my senior class in high school, which is the same thing as being president of the student body. I enjoyed that, I enjoyed planning, I enjoyed promoting, I enjoyed meeting people, asking for votes, I enjoyed that. Some people don’t like that at all. But I found that was an area I truly enjoyed, so I ate up Boys State. I loved it. It was just one of the best things that ever happened to me. I had no idea how it was going to work, but I figured it out. I figured, ‘I’m going to run for governor,’” he said.
Norton won that election, then was invited to attend Boys Nation. The 1952 session was just the seventh session of Boys Nation.
At Boys Nation, Norton decided to run for president, and won that election as well.
He credited the experiences at both programs for broadening his vision and shaping his life, although an experience he earned through his Boys Nation presidency soured him on a career in politics.
In January 1953, Norton was invited back to Washington, D.C., to attend the inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower. On the trip, Norton was a guest at several inaugural balls, but the alcohol-fueled antics of many of the adults he saw turned him off from a political career.
Instead, he turned to missionary work and education. Norton, his wife, Jane, and their children went to Brazil in 1961. “That was our home away from home for 16 years,” he said.
After moving back permanently to the U.S. in 1977, Norton served as a professor and later dean at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City before moving to Searcy, Ark., to join the faculty at Harding University.
Now retired, Norton credits Boys State and Boys Nation for giving him “a platform.”
“A person needs a platform for his life, he needs a place to stand, he needs people who believe in him. So especially as a young person, it was impressive to people that, on a résumé, I would have been governor of Boys State and president of Boys Nation. It gave me credibility for everything else that I wanted to do,” he said.