Depending on the source, John C. Norman is said to be either the first or second African-American architect licensed in West Virginia. He also was among the first 10 architects, white or black, certified by the state. Mr. Norman was creative and talented, and his work was sought by clients both black and white, an abnormality during the Jim Crow era.
John Norman was born in New Jersey in 1892 and grew up in North Carolina. He attended the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State Institute and served in the U.S. Army Calvary Engineers during World War I. After his service, Mr. Norman continued his education with postgraduate courses in architecture and structural engineering at Carnegie Technical Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
He settled in Charleston, West Virginia, in 1919, where he met his bride-to-be Ruth Stephenson*, an educator at Garnet High School. The couple married in 1924 and had one child, John Jr., a Harvard-educated cardiovascular surgeon who is widely recognized for his groundbreaking work with organ transplants and artificial organs.
Throughout his career, Mr. Norman designed a variety of buildings both in Charleston and throughout West Virginia. Among his designs were houses, hotels, schools, theaters, hospitals, churches and businesses. One of his better-known projects was The Ferguson Hotel (pictured). Constructed in 1922, The Ferguson Hotel stood at the corner of Washington and Shrewsbury streets. The establishment, complete with a theater, café, pool room, barber shop and ballroom, became the cornerstone of The Block, the heart of Charleston’s African-American community. Music icons like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway performed at The Ferguson Hotel, and today the 25-acre area where the hotel and many other African-American businesses were located is known as The Block Historic District.
Mr. Norman taught part-time at West Virginia State College (now University) and designed several renovation projects, including the construction of faculty houses that are still in use today. During World War II, Mr. Norman was called back to duty working for the U.S. Army on classified construction projects.
John C. Norman Sr. died in 1967. His contributions to Charleston’s African-American culture cannot accurately be measured, but, he, along with countless African Americans, helped make Charleston the hip, historic city it is today.
*A humorous anecdote about Mrs. Norman: After she retired, she did not give up teaching. In a story relayed by a local, seasoned newspaper reporter, the reporter recalled Mrs. Norman would regularly call him and other journalists to point out improper English grammar and punctuation in their stories. Once an English teacher, always an English teacher.