The Celebration of triumph for the Rev. Dr. Clarence Norman Sr. at the First Baptist Church of Crown Heights Saturday, July 18 was one of epic proportions.
This preacher, leader and political force was born in Goldsboro, N.C., 85 years ago on April 30, 1930.
Raised by a single mother, Norman escaped the cotton fields of North Carolina in 1945 and came to New York to be told by public school educators that he was not college material. They even suggested that he should find a job in a local factory. His thirst for knowledge and self-confidence proved them wrong.
The massive police presence outside First Baptist Church complimented the crowd entering the filled-to-capacity sanctuary. They came in droves, and most were influenced by his teachings, relentless love and many acts of kindness. They were elected officials past and present, diverse clergy, community leaders and everyday citizens. Everyone viewed their encounters with Norman at various stages of their lives as important milestones.
His obituary tells of all his accomplishments. He established the First Baptist Mission of Williamsburg in 1953, and from that original group of 20 founding members grew the First Baptist Church of Crown Heights, now boasting of over 2,000 members.
Norman established the Local Development Corporation of Crown Heights in 1987, which has built or renovated over 800 units of housing, including three senior residential apartment buildings. He has sponsored Meals on Wheels, senior citizen centers, a minority- and women-owned businesses revolving loan fund, community computer training, youth educational initiatives, housing assistance for displaced families and much more.
Norman served as protestant chaplain for the State of New York Division of Parole, chaplain for the Center of Nursing and Rehabilitation, chairman of the advisory board for the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, a three-term Democratic County committeeman in Orange, N.J. and chairman of the First Baptist Church of Crown Heights Housing and Development Corporation. His service and honor awards from educational, political and religious institutions are numerous.
Clarence Norman Jr. told the packed church, “We have not come here to mourn a loss but to celebrate a life. Sixty-two years of preaching. A celebration of a triumphant reflection of what my dad’s life represented. He came from picking cotton to picking mayors, judges, governors and elected officials. His legacy will not be interred with his bones”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio viewed Norman as one who “uplifted the people—not in the abstract—because every person mattered. He connected to the people of his congregation. He encouraged many in public service to keep going forward. His work and actions were one. He understood the fundamental power of community and kindness. He reminded us of what a human family looks like.”
New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer reminisced about the 50 years during which he knew Norman. “He taught us to leave our prejudices at the door and come together. He told us elected officials, clergy and citizens how to act and not to forget the purpose of life,” he said.
Public Advocate Letitia James received a standing ovation when she said, “Reverend Norman had prepared us for this day. For 62 years, he has arranged and rearranged some of our lives.” She promised, “I will work with the City Council to rename part of Rogers Avenue after Reverend Norman and redevelop the Bedford-Atlantic Armory and turn it into a place where there are programs for young people. I will name it after him and turn it into a community center. This is not a season of loss, but one of thanksgiving and legacy.”
The homegoing celebration kept mourners on their feet, as the singing and clapping of hands transformed the sanctuary with outburst of glorious shouts of praise. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams was “proud of Reverend Norman Sr. because he worked to put Blacks in office. He helped to give us the first Black district attorney, the first Black public advocate, Borough president and many judges. He was the first Black county leader. I respect what he has done for the county of Kings.”
It was a worthy celebration for such a purpose-driven man.