In her 2009 book, Mississippi in Transition: The Role of the Mississippi Humanities Council, Cora Norman describes a phone call she received in 1972 from Thomas Flynn, a professor of philosophy at the University of Mississippi, asking her to become the staff administrator of the new Mississippi Humanities Council (MHC). Norman listened to the offer, hung up the phone, and immediately went to the dictionary to look up humanities. It was a funny introduction to the word for the woman who became the MHC’s first executive director and embodied the pursuit of problem solving through humanities for Mississippians for more than two decades.
Cora Ellen Garner was born on 7 November 1926 to Robert Everett Garner and Jewel Beasley Garner and grew up an only child in rural Columbia County, Arkansas. At a time when most people, especially women, did not seek higher education, Garner dreamed of going to medical school. She graduated from Magnolia Agriculture and Mechanical College (now Southern Arkansas University) and upon graduation was one of a handful of women who enrolled in the University of Arkansas Medical School. Financial pressures and discrimination caused her leave the school after one semester but did not weaken her resolve for higher education. She married Bill Norman in 1946, and they moved to Texas so he could attend graduate school. Cora Norman received a bachelor’s in chemistry from Texas Western College and worked to support her husband through school.
The Norman family, which now included two children, moved to Oxford in 1961 when Bill took a job in the biology department at the University of Mississippi. Cora subsequently returned to school and earned a master’s degree in chemistry and a doctorate in education administration from the university. Oxford was in the midst of its protracted struggle with opponents of segregation, and Norman initially hesitated to step into the fray. She had grown up in a segregated society but had developed an understanding that friendships could cross the color line. Those friendships eventually encouraged her to question and then challenge the status quo. Shortly after her arrival in Oxford, while on a family trip, Norman’s car overturned, injuring her and her African American housekeeper. Norman refused segregated treatment at the hospital, instead sharing a table in the emergency room with the housekeeper. Through such experiences and witnessing James Meredith’s attempt to enroll at the university, Norman concluded that those with the advantage of education were more open to differing perspectives. She also joined many civic-minded organizations in an attempt to help the community move forward and acted on her commitment to discussion, public and private, as a way to resolve community issues.
While finishing work on her doctorate she received the phone call that began her relationship with the MHC. In 1965 Congress established the Foundation for the Arts and Humanities (subsequently the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities). States were to receive federal money to establish humanities programs that would educate local communities about public policy issues. Through cooperation with universities and academics, the MHC sought to teach adults to address problems through learning and discussion.
Through a series of community meetings across the state, the MHC board determined that the most pressing problem facing Mississippi was education. In addition to the state’s high dropout rate (around 50 percent at the time of the MHC’s inception), conflicts over integrating the public school system raged. White families were pulling their children out of schools, and superintendents were resigning. The MHC spent its first three years trying to address these issues, accepting proposals on how to best address the problems and allocating money. The MHC initially encountered significant resistance both from professors, who were expected to get out of the classroom and into the community, and from school superintendents, who were struggling simply to find places where blacks and whites could sit down together. Norman’s candor in talking about sensitive issues and her willingness to listen and learn made her the ideal person to shepherd the MHC through this turbulent time.
Norman headed the MHC for twenty-four years, steering the agency in accordance with the state’s needs. At times the council focused on local and regional history; at other times it worked to educate people about how to find a more dynamic civic voice. Norman retired in 1996 and traveled extensively, studying the changing role and status of women around the world. The MHC’s Cora Norman Lecture Fund is named in her honor, and on 25 October 2012 Norman herself delivered the Cora Norman Lecture on the University of Mississippi campus. She has received many other honors, including the Fannie Lou Hamer Humanitarian Award in 2009.
- Cora Norman, Mississippi in Transition: The Role of the Mississippi Humanities Council (2009)
- Gayle Graham Yates, Mississippi Mind: A Personal Cultural History of an American State (1990)