By Amanda Rogers
Brenda Norwood gazed around the open fields surrounding the new school to be named in her honor, looking at the wooden stakes that mark the hundreds of new homes that will soon be built along the empty streets.
“I used to pick cotton in these fields to earn money for my school clothes,” Norwood said.
Norwood has come a long way, from not being allowed to attend Mansfield schools to having one named for her.
Brenda Norwood Elementary, the Mansfield ISD’s 24th elementary school, was dedicated Saturday with a standing-room-only crowd packed into the cafetorium.
Norwood, who will turn 73 on Tuesday, has lived through segregation, being in the first integrated graduating class at Mansfield High School, becoming the first Black employee in the school district and the murders of her sister and niece.
Through it all, she has maintained a positive outlook and a loving attitude to everyone she meets. She credits her family for her success, especially her mother, Louise Hawkins.
“My mother said ‘You have to forgive. When you forgive, it sets you free,’” Norwood said.
Brenda Kaye Hawkins attended the Colored School in Mansfield through the eighth grade with her brother and sister, then caught the Trailways bus to I.M. Terrell High School in Fort Worth for ninth through the 11th grades because there was no high school for Blacks in Mansfield. When she was entering her senior year, the Mansfield school district finally integrated.
The Mansfield school district has stood off an attempt to integrate the schools in 1956 with then-Governor Allan Shivers calling out the Texas Rangers to resist an attempt by three Black students to attend high school. By 1965, the district was facing the loss of federal funds if it did not integrate, so Mansfield agreed to accept Black students.
“I did not want to go,” Norwood said. “The teachers let us know that we’d be lucky if we got out of there (with a diploma). The white kids would spit in our water fountains.
“I started singing in the choir and made some friends,” she said. “Raymond Meeks (now a local attorney) was my friend.”
Norwood remembers that there were seven Black students at Mansfield High School, including her and her sister Ora Lee, who both graduated in 1966 as part of the first integrated class in Mansfield.
After she graduated, she was approached by the Mansfield superintendent, who asked her to become a teacher’s aide in the district.
“Willie Pigg came out to my house,” Norwood remembers. “There were no Blacks working for the school district. They had to have some Blacks because they were going to lose federal money.”
She worked as a paraprofessional in the district for several years, but her reception as the district’s first Black employee wasn’t always warm.
“I didn’t go to the lounge,” she said. “They weren’t all that friendly. I was there for the children. People started speaking. Take each day and do the best you can.”
Norwood decided that she wanted to become a teacher, and after years of study, graduated from Texas Woman’s University in 1997 and was hired to teach science and eventually multicultural classes in the Mansfield school district.
She married Norman Norwood on May 24, 1980, and the two raised two sons, Norman Jr. and Nicholas. The couple now has seven grandchildren, one of whom will be a second-grader at Norwood Elementary.
For decades, the Norwoods hosted the Juneteenth Celebration in Mansfield, starting with family members and growing the event to several hundred people every year.
She and her husband also raised her sister’s children after the murder of Ora Lee, which is still unsolved. One of those children, her niece, Wendie Prescott, was also murdered while attending the University of Texas at Arlington.
“God blesses us with challenges to master and learn from,” Norwood told the crowd at her school dedication Saturday. “Love is the main thing that overcomes hate. As time goes on, you learn that you have to love those individuals and move on.”
After 40 years in the district, Norwood retired in 2009, but continued to substitute teach for several years.
When she got the call that a school was to be named in her honor, she was stunned.
“Why me?” she asked. “I just did what everybody else did. Do the right thing, that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Donald Williams, the district’s associate superintendent of communications and marketing, got to make the call to tell Norwood about her namesake school.
“This really is a full-circle moment, and it’s a testament to how far we’ve come as a district and community,” he said. “Brenda Norwood was part of the first integrated graduating class at Mansfield High School, she later was the first black educator in the district, and now she has a school named after her. She is so loved in the community by everyone. The outpouring of love and support I have seen for her is immense, and we know she’ll be an integral part of that school because she loves kids, she has a passion to teach, and she loves to help others.”
Mayor Michael Evans, Mansfield’s first Black mayor, also remarked about how far the city and school district have come.
“The naming of the newest elementary school that honors Brenda K. Norwood is a testament to the progress made in Mansfield,” said Evans, who is pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church and former president of the Mansfield ISD school board. “Brenda serves as a representative of an era that changed the face of the district and slowly softened the hardened hearts of people who would come to learn that slightly beneath the melanin rich skin of their fellow human beings were people not unlike themselves; people all created in the image of God. People with the same desires and aspirations for their children, simply to be educated and attain the American Dream.”
Sheryl Suchsland, principal at Brenda Norwood Elementary, hopes that Norwood will be a regular at the new school.
“We definitely have high expectations because Mrs. Norwood is such a huge piece in our community,” Suchsland said. “Living up to her expectations is just what I hope that we can achieve. She is extremely grateful and extremely humble. When we brought her in take a tour, she was just beside herself.
“I’m hoping that we can take things that she taught her kids and bring them into the building, bring her into the building,” she said. “She is going to be the matriarch of the family.”
Following in its namesake’s legacy, Brenda Norwood Elementary School will be a different kind of school.
The 112,747-square-foot building at 2000 Julian Field Street is larger than the other elementaries in the district and will house a 700-student traditional neighborhood school, a 100-student STEM Academy and a 100-student Fine Arts Academy. The $29 million building looks different, too.
“It’s more open and collaborative, there’s more gathering spaces for kids,” explained Jeff Brogden, associate superintendent for facilities and bonds. “This is potentially a model going forward. We will visit with the staff in four to six months about what works and what doesn’t.”
Alma Martinez Intermediate and Charlene McKinzey Middle schools will also have a more open design, Brogden said. Both of those new schools will hold dedications Aug. 14
Mansfield, Texas, is a booming city, nestled between Fort Worth and Dallas, but with a personality all its own. The city’s 76,247 citizens enjoy an award-winning school district, vibrant economy, historic downtown, prize-winning park system and community focus spread across 37 square miles. The Mansfield Record is dedicated to reporting city and school news, community happenings, police and fire news, business, food and restaurants, parks and recreation, library, historical archives and special events. The city’s only online newspaper launched in September 2020 and will offer introductory advertising rates for the first three months at three different rates.