THE REMARKABLE
HENRY NORWOOD FAMILY

BY OSCAR M. STALLINGS

Submitted by Curtis Hannah


Oftentimes the earliest memories are the most lasting, and the scenes of one's childhood prove to be the most enduring and endearing. The little world my infancy knew was the beautiful White Oak Valley in the picturesque hill-country along the Arkansas River between the Ozark and Ouachita ranges. It was well watered by the Vache Grasse Creek and her many spring-branch tributaries. This was my native Heath! It was here that some forty families resided at the close of the Civil War. Here Union and Confederate, once well-to-do and ne'er-do-well, white and black, were all peacefully and patiently striving together for a better tomorrow. Out of this "little melting pot" an outstanding prism- like personality came to the fore--a black man named Henry Norwood. So much was said about him by so many that I found myself, at age ten, making a serious study of the man.

Soon after Appomattox and the end of slavery, two young negro men came to the Gilliam farm in an adjoining community. These two were neither slaves nor tramps--just a pair of persistent souls seeking a better life in freedom's land. Bill Norwood, about thirty, was ebony black, stocky and stoop- ish of stature, sheepishly shy in manner, but endowed with common honest and a will to work. Henry Norwood, only sixteen, was also very dark with a tinge of bronze and stood slenderly tall and erect. He had a radiant countenance and resonant voice. He was the natural, logical "public agent" for this two-man team. In cautious tones, he said to Mr. Gilliam, "We have come over the big Ouachita Mountains from the Norwood plantation on the Cosatot River way down South. We be brothers. We want to stay together. Do right, and help people. We need a place to work and live." The two were destined to live and labor together, and to rear their families on adjacent farms.

Yes, Mr. Gilliam employed the two to clear land, to build fences, work crops for board and keep, plus an ocasional allowance. This was not oppression. It was an unavoidable emergency in an almost moneyless economy. The next employment for Henry and Bill was another clearing, fencing, farming job with L.B. McKinney, my maternal grandfather. When the second task was completed my Tennessee-born, Scotch-Irish ancestor, aided the Norwood brothers to "homestead" forty acres each, of goodly mountain land alongside his own lovely acres in the valley below. This persistent pair was soon to be joined by their parents, a sister, a younger brother and some others. And this is how White Oak Valley came to have the nicest negroes in the world. If perchance a black family moved in who proved unworthy, Henry would tactfully move them out. He would not tolerate irresponsibility among his own against the white neighbors who respected Henry and his people so highly. He was indeed an apostle of peace, an ambassador of good will--and a shrewd sponsor of law and order.

Let us look some more at this marvelous man. Why was he so loved and respected by the young and old of both races? How did he become so useful in life? Who taught him how to make friends and influence people? It is hard to find the full answers to these questions. He belonged to neither church nor lodge. He did not "profess religion" until late in life. He was clean and decent in person and speech. He could almost match Lincoln with homely stories and apt illustra- tions. He went about quietly serving good causes. He directed many a young person away from evil and harm. He knew how to put his own in their proper places while causing others to do right and respect one another.

This man was noted for teaching many young men and boys throughout the country how to hunt, fish, swim, play ball and ride horses. He was a somewhat self-appointed manager coach, and umpire of much of our rustic games. He knew the wild things that grew and lived in nature. Out of this younger set there were those who became professional people and public officials. The remainder became better than average citizens. The hero of this story had no small share in it all. This was evident, especially among his own children, as well as the good results so apparent among others of both races. Moreover, the mature men of importance of the area, from constables to our congressman, liked for Henry to be with them during their "big game" hunting trips. High in the Winding Stair Mountains over in the Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, was their favorite hunting grounds. Being an expert woodsman, he was needed as a guide to keep the hunters, especially those lacking in experience, from getting lost in the trackless mountain forests. These are facts that many now dead knew about, and still some who are living remember quite well.

He was the "vet" of the valley--the best "horse doctor" around. He was a neighbor indeed, in times of sickness and trouble. It was reported that he repeatedly put his fast stepping, pale, bay pacer over the rocky, crooked roads to get a doctor that the husband in the case could stay with the expectant mother. His alibi was logical--he could send the doctor on, while his own tired horse could take time coming back. It is not an idle legend that this same fellow took a fierce "Paul Rever ride" the night this writer was born as a premature child seventy-nine years ago. But I have lived to tell the story with all the passion of my limited, but willing pen--and may no one dare to fence me in! It is easy to see why such a one would be very popular. People used to say: Henry Norwood could hold any office in the country in he were not a negro. Please do not waste any tears of pity here. Henry would not like that, for he sat enthroned in the hearts of his fellowmen, an office no political division could possibly offer. Again, it might have been well said that had this man been born east of the Mississippi River, or with twentieth century opportunities he could easily have rated with such great men as the late Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver and the living Senator Brooks and columnist Rowan. Yet he was not born too far west nor too soon. Doubtlessly guided by a providential Star, he came to White Oak Valley on schedule time.

Family wise, he was twice wed, and lived happily with each wife until the day of her death. The second set of several children were reared mostly in his second bereavement which ended in his own death at almost a hundred years of age. These children of his beloved Lina became well poised, well- to-do people, now scattered into the big cities throughout the nation. I hold some of their addresses among my special mailing lists, There were four children by the first marriage, all gifted singers, Daisy did the "lead";, Bud "bore down" on the bass, Ada contributed the contralto, and little Charlessang the tenor. Here was a mixed quartet that could sing beautiful folk songs, patriotic songs, church hymns, and also the little silly-dittys of the day. They sang as occasion de- manded, at home, in the fields, at church and in various public places, including Fourth of July and other summer picnics. One day Ada died, afteralong, lingering fever. Many people of both races from near and far went to the house of sorrow with food, flowers and comfort. One of the latest comers was the nearby neighbor. He was the "coffin-maker" of the community who had lingered to do the best possible job for Ada. This very small man with Irish features, a bald head and a big Roman nose, bent low, came slowly and sadly along. Henry saw him coming, and left the crowded house and yard and went walking down the lane as if he desired to meet this man alone. The two soon came face to face, stood speechless for a moment, and fell into each other's arms and wept unashamedly. Soon Henry broke the silence "Mr. Lew, my quartet is broken, my quartet is broken! My heart is broken!" Mr. Lew replied, "Henry, your children will sing together in a better world than this. I cannot carry a tune here, but we both shall join the chorus of that big meeting there." This was integration--not written by the pens of men--but indelibly engraved upon the fleshly tablets of human hearts by the unerring finger of Divine love. This was race relations unbiased, and at its best.

This century-spanning era is now past. We are now writing new pages in the book of life with the wars and the woes, the crisis and the changes of current events. The colored people are now all gone from White Oak Valley and almost the very last of the old-school native whites are also gone away. Huntsville Chapel church-school (colored) building is now decayed away. Trees and bushes grow among the graves in the cemetery where Ada and her mother,and Henry's beloved Lina all rest in peace. The Smyrna Baptist Church (whites) building burned down long ago in a brush fire. The school building of the white people has been removed. The neat little frame combination community church-cemetery chapel, serving all creeds and colors, called Mt. Harmony is the only institution left in existence. But this fragmented past has not all been lost. Future hopes can still be found in the hearts of a younger set, near and far, now and forever!

On the third Sunday of September in 1948 a great homecoming day was observed at the Mt. Harmony church-chapel. The Norwoods were especially invited and attended. Henry arrived in a splendid car with his son, his daughter-in-law, Ora, his daughter who became a bookkeeper, and two, near teen age grandchildren. They had come from Kansas City, Miss- ouri, by way of Oklahoma City, and reached Mt. Harmony at high noon as outdoor tables were being laden with good foods for a great feast. The big car drove past a waving crowd to some shade trees. Some men rushed to them, took them in hand and brought them up to be with the rest of us. Henry's daughter, Ora, turned out to be my table partner. The others were placed here and there along the tables, with the two grandchildren being placed at the "children's" table. No- body felt "strained" and no time was lost as we all alike talked about old times, and the whereabouts of old friends and families. But the greatest care was bestowed upon the aged Henry, the now prime patriarch of us all. His every wish and want was warmly consulted by both old friends and those who had "heard so much about him."

Fragments were soon back in the baskets, and singing was starting in the church. The best of the day was soon to happen. The main address by one of the sons of the Valley had really rung a refrain in all hearts during the morning session. And now the moment of truth had come when several selected ten-minute speakers would speak. Henry, on purpose, was put last on the list. We all wondered if he would be able to talk. As it turned out, all others had done well, but Henry's message proved to be the masterpiece. This aged man, now past ninety-three years old, almost stone blind, slowly stood erect and handsome, with his hands atop the graceful golden knobbed white walking cane. All eyes were upon him as he with the culture of the ancients. He stood for a few moments in shivering silence as tears trickled down his well formed face. It seemed that he would not be able to say his piede. Then he dashed away his tears with a fine handkerchief. He smiled at his audience, and began to speak in short well-spaced sentences. He extolled the past and challenged the future. He complimented a community life he had helped to build. Sensing that his audience was with him, he swept into his message with the zeal of a philosopher, the strength of a senator and the spirit of a gentleman. His daughter, Ora, jerked at his coat then called aloud, "Papa, your time is past! Your time is past!" The crowd encored back, "Let him speak, let him speak." One strong-lung native shouted, "Speak on, Henry, it's a long time till sundown." Henry resumed--"Yes, and there is a sun that never sets." Then he waxed warm, with the wisdom of a patriot and a prophet all rolled into one. He seemed to sum up the Cross of Gold, the Gettysburg Address, and Henry W. Grady's "New South" in this last one heaven-sent opportunity! His little grand- daughter read and sang appropriately. Hers was the benediction of the day. The crowd mixed, mingled, and moved away. One thing was painfully missing. We found ourselves unaware and unprepared to preserve this timely message by either shorthand or tape recording. So those wonderful words, so aptly spoken, like pictures of silver in frames of gold, were entrusted to the memories of mortal minds to the end of our lives.

Now how could anyone ever forget such a one? Indeed, Henry Norwood was one of the most remarkable persons I have ever known, and may his children for many generations to come walk in his footsteps.