San Bernardino’s first black City Councilman was a champion of racial justice
By Chris Levister –
Norris P. Gregory, Jr. a pioneering figure, businessman and hard driving civil rights champion died April 21, 2011 of pancreatic cancer. He was 85 said his wife Salena of 64 years.
In 1967 Gregory broke the “color line” when he was elected to represent the San Bernardino 6th Ward serving two fouryear terms. He was instrumental in raising awareness of the city’s legendary racial segregation, which routinely relegated Black residents to the 6th Ward.
In a 2007 Black Voice News interview he recalled as a teacher in the San Bernardino City Unified Schools the numbing images of segregation and racial unrest.
“It was an era of intense uprising and change. Blacks were given menial jobs.
They had no power or voice in government.
City leadership, was all white,” recalls Gregory. “Angry young Black freedom fighters burned and pillaged homes and businesses. When newcomers arrived from riot torn Los Angeles they often faced minority neighborhoods under siege surrounded by an ironclad wall of segregation.”
Haunted by images of flames, racial hatred and rampant segregation, he turned to Salena for wisdom.
“She told me ‘you might not want to be an activist – but you can make a difference’. You can change the law,” Gregory said.
“So I formed a community coalition of trailblazers like Frances Grice, John Dukes, Betty Anderson, Jack Hill, Valerie Pope Ludlum, Bonnie Johnson and Art Townsend. With the help of the White mayor we did a massive sweep appointing Blacks to virtually every city commission and board. We knocked down a lot of barriers.”
Gregory once described himself as “an evolutionist rather than a revolutionist” in matters of race. “You ought always to keep the lines of communication open with those with whom you disagree,” he said.
As the first Black man to serve on the City Council he endured gawking and more than a few physical threats. In April 1970 four fire bombs caused damage estimated at $4,000 to his Westside home. He was the target of a recall.
Gregory who suffered minor burns when he attempted to extinguish the blaze with a garden hose refused to connect the bombing to the recall. No arrests were made.
The Kansas native said he and his wife Salena, who was not injured, were stunned that someone would have this type of hostile feeling.
“It’s frightening when someone throws fire bombs at your home. But I refused to stand on the sidelines and wait for the fire department. I became an accidental activist.”
But Gregory’s métier was in the quieter, painstaking coalition building that paved the way to fuller societal participation by Blacks. He published a lifestyle and entertainment magazine called “Talk” marketed toward African American readers. He dressed elegantly, spoke in a low, lilting voice and earned a reputation as a peacemaker, mentor and chief tactician of the Inland civil rights movement.
“He was the right person at a time when our people needed someone to effectively represent the Black community. He led with great intelligence and dignity,” said 6th Ward Councilman Rikke Van Johnson.
“Councilman Gregory was always supportive of my efforts to improve our community.” “Those who stood for him knew that they were standing against the status quo,” says Francis Grice. “They were fighting for change, they were making a statement.”
Grice a long time community leader who served with Gregory on the city’s Redevelopment Agency said he also quietly helped her during lean times.
“I was struggling. I didn’t have a job. He sold history books depicting important African Americans. One day he handed me a stack of those books and said Francis ‘go sell these books you can make some money’,” recalled Grice.
“He owned an industrial pallet company which put hundreds of people to work. He helped a lot of children go to school, and to stay in school by providing scholarships.
He never looked for praise, he never looked for accolades he just did it because he believed in it,” she said.
“He was a man of unquestionable character. He had a great passion for people. He was a good man,” said Salena. “He’ll be missed.”
A celebration of life service will be held today (Thursday) from 4 to 6 pm at the Arrowhead Elks Lodge at 1073 N. Mt. Vernon Ave. San Bernardino.
A private burial will be at Riverside National Cemetery.
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