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Tampa man’s grandfather was a civil rights pioneer, another ancestor was a black slave owner

Carl Norton Jr. is proud of his father's and grandfather's contributions, but wants to know more about his family's history.

TAMPA — Carl Norton Jr. has a complicated family history.

While his grandfather George Petigrew Norton might never have spoken the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” he was among Tampa’s earliest Black residents and civil rights leaders to push that truth upon the white establishment.

“He was not afraid to let them know that Blacks were equal,” Norton Jr. said.

It’s a cause Carl Norton Sr. and later Norton Jr. took up.

But the Norton family was also on the wrong side of the ugliest chapter in U.S. history.

They have Black ancestors who enslaved others.

“It’s something my family has never wanted to talk about,” Norton Jr. said. “We prefer to talk only about my grandfather and my father who did great things.”

This is the first time Norton Jr., 80, has spoken publicly about his family’s controversial past.

“I decided I cannot ignore those parts of our history we do not like,” he said. “That cannot work.”

That Norton ancestors enslaved people was even news to historians who have documented the family’s contributions to the local civil rights movement.

But it did not surprise them.

“I’d be hard pressed to name a Southern family that didn’t — in one way or another — have a complicated past,” said Cantor Brown, who included the Nortons in his book Family Records of African American Pioneers of Tampa and Hillsborough County.

Still, Brown said, the Nortons also “helped to build the community in ways that brought tangible results for Black residents.”

Carl Norton Jr. at his home in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Norton Jr. has traced his roots back to England’s Isle of Wight to ancestors who were white.

In 1635, Norton Jr. said, biblical scholar Jonathon Norton joined the colony of Virginia’s Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America. It was also a birthplace of American slavery.

“From what I understand, the Nortons stayed in Jamestown for a while before moving on,” Norton Jr. said. “One of them later had children with an Afro woman from one of the islands.”

Still, he said, because those pioneering Black Nortons were light-skinned and because white Europeans considered them to be well-educated and from “noble blood,” they avoided slavery, even as it became the primary economic engine of the colonies and later the United States.

“The Nortons became pretty wealthy by the 1700s and 1800s and accumulated land,” Norton Jr. said. “They needed people to grow and pick plants. And, sadly, that meant they bought slaves and had indentured white servants.”

They weren’t unique as African Americans who enslaved Black people, author Brown said. “Enclaves of wealthy, slave-owning blacks existed in many Southern cities. Savannah, Charleston and New Orleans particularly come to mind.”

But Gerald Urso, who chronicles Florida’s African American history, including the Nortons, said such slave masters “have to be put into context.”

“Most of the time African Americans were purchasing their own family members to save them from slavery,” Urso said. “If you had the money to buy your cousin or aunt or uncle, you would.”

And such families were not known to torture, beat or overwork the enslaved, said Fred Hearns, a scholar of Tampa’s African American history.

“You might not have known they were enslaved unless you were told,” Hearns said.

Norton Jr. does not know how his family treated the enslaved.

The oral history passed on through generations doesn’t distinguish who owned people or where the plantations were located, but he knows his descendants over the centuries had land in Virginia, Louisiana and north Florida.

“My known family history really begins with my grandfather George Petigrew Norton,” Norton Jr. said.

Carl Norton Jr. holds a portrait of his grandfather, Dr. George P. Norton, at his home in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

His grandfather was born in Jefferson County in 1865 and raised by well-to-do parents who owned a farm. He went to college and then medical school.

“It was not only a Southern tradition, but also an American tradition, that if you came from, quote, prominence, you were expected to marry into prominence,” Norton Jr. said. “And in the Black community, the Hollomans were the among most prominent.”

His grandfather George Norton married Mattie Mae Holloman. Her grandfather Mills Holloman, according to Brown, was Hillsborough County’s first Black commissioner and her father Adam Holloman later served in the same role before the Jim Crow era.

With such Hillsborough roots, Mattie persuaded George Norton to move his medical practice from Apalachicola to Tampa in 1903.

“The Nortons quickly emerged as powerhouses,” Brown said. Then “the White Citizens Party took effective control of city politics about 1910 and, after World War I, the Ku Klux Klan infiltrated the scene.”

“But Dr. Norton earned respect for his personal courage, which is to say his willingness to stand up and be counted. To such a man, a desire for equal rights and to press for those rights probably came naturally.”

Among George Norton’s accomplishments were helping to start the Tampa Negro Board of Trade and the local chapter of the National Negro Business League, both of which pushed for opportunities for African Americans.

He also lobbied for better education for Black children, purchased land to be sold to African Americans and founded the Central Industrial Insurance Company, Florida’s largest such Black-owned business.

“George Norton should have a statue in Tampa,” Urso said. “He was that important.”

His son, Carl Norton Sr., became a dentist who funded college scholarships for African Americans, according to Norton Jr.

“He spoke seven languages fluently,” Urso said. W. E. B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the NAACP, “considered Carl Norton Sr. to be one of the most well-read Black men in the South.”

Norton Jr. was later among those who helped integrate Tampa City Hall under Mayor Dick Greco in the 1960s by joining the Model Cities program, which sought to rebuild blighted neighborhoods.

Still, Norton Jr. could not ignore the family whispers about their slave-owning past.

He’d hear his parents, aunts and uncles bring it up and then quickly change topics.

“It was a thing they avoided talking about,” he said.

As he grew older and bolder, Norton Jr. said, he pressed for information.

Much is still unknown, but Norton Jr. promises to keep digging until he learns the whole truth.

“Slavery is the most incredibly repulsive part of our nation’s history,” he said. “It is part of my family history and I am not proud of that. But my grandfather and father worked hard to help a lot of people. I am proud of that.”