Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists
Biography of Josephine B. Mathews Norcom, 1873-1927
By Marianne E. Julienne for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, a publication of the Library of Virginia. Reprinted with permission.
Josephine B. Mathews Norcom (16 January 1873–27 April 1927), civic leader and woman suffrage advocate, was born probably in Wytheville, Virginia, and was the daughter of Fanny Mathews. Her father's name is not known. Little is known about her youth or education in Wytheville, where she grew up. She graduated from the Normal Department at Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (later Virginia State University), near Petersburg, in 1889. Early in the 1890s Josie B. Mathews, as she was known as a young woman, taught school in Salem before moving to Lynchburg in 1895. She also taught at a night school for working women and men operated by the Woman's League of Lynchburg. She was teaching in Pulaski County when she married widower Israel Charles Norcom there on 6 November 1901. They had no children, although she helped raise his youngest children by his first wife.
Josephine M. Norcom, as she was generally known after her marriage, continued to teach occasionally in Portsmouth, where her husband was principal of the city's segregated high school. Through her women's club work she embraced many of the causes of the Progressive movement, including public education, public health, and the living and working conditions of African American women and men. "Woman thinks not of what she can get," Norcom informed an audience in 1911, "but more of what she can give" to improve communities. In 1909 she was a founder of the Anti-Tuberculosis League of Portsmouth, to help reduce the high mortality rates experienced by African Americans. A longtime member of the city's Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Norcom served as corresponding secretary of the Woman's Mite Missionary Society of the Virginia Conference, which raised awareness and funds in support of AME-sponsored foreign missions.
Norcom attended annual meetings of the Hampton Negro Conference, which worked to ameliorate economic and social issues African Americans faced around the state. At a 1907 meeting, social worker Janie Porter Barrett and members of local women's clubs resolved to establish a statewide organization to affiliate with the National Association of Colored Women (later the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs). Norcom chaired a committee to determine where the nascent Virginia State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs would focus its efforts. The federation decided to establish a facility for African American girls who were sentenced to prison terms and had previously been jailed with adults. As chair of the federation's Ways and Means Committee, Norcom collected the money raised across the state, and in 1915 the Industrial Home School for Colored Girls (later the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls) opened in Hanover County. She was a member of the school's board of trustees from 1914 until 1920 and was a member of its advisory committee from 1920 until 1925.
As an officer in the Virginia State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, Norcom sometimes attended biennial conventions of the National Association of Colored Women. She was a member of the resolutions committee at the 1916 convention, when the association endorsed the proposed Susan B. Anthony amendment to the Constitution of the United States to guarantee women's right to vote. Norcom advocated woman suffrage and spoke on the topic at the Virginia federation's annual convention in July 1920, just a month before the amendment was ratified. A supporter of the Republican Party, she addressed a meeting of the Woman's Republican League in Washington, D.C., in October 1920.
After her husband's death on 18 March 1916, Norcom returned to work. She taught school and worked as a matron at Virginia Hall at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University). In 1917, after the United States had entered the first world war, she became head of the Hostess House for African American troops at Camp Upton, in Brookhaven, New York. She returned to Virginia after the war and taught at public schools in Newport News until 1921. Norcom moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, after accepting a position as executive secretary for the segregated West End branch of the Young Women's Christian Association there. She taught classes, gave lectures, and publicized conditions African Americans faced in the city's overcrowded West End community. About 1926 she moved to Detroit, Michigan, to do similar work for the YWCA there.
Josephine B. Mathews Norcom died in Detroit of a cerebral hemorrhage on 27 April 1927. She was buried near her husband at Mount Olive Cemetery, in Portsmouth, Virginia. The Detroit YWCA opened Camp Norcom for African American girls in 1928.
Birth and death dates on gravestone, Mount Olive Cemetery, Portsmouth, Virginia; Lists of Teachers, Accession 25000, Library of Virginia (LVA); Pulaski Co. Marriage Register; Fifteenth Annual Report Hampton Negro Conference (1911), 50–54 (quotation on 50); Virginia State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, Report of Ways and Means Committee, 1912–1913 (1913); some references in Industrial Home School for Wayward Colored Girls Records, Accession 51528, LVA; Richard R. Wright, Centennial Encyclopaedia of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1816–1916, (1916), 335; National Association of Colored Women National Association Notes, 19 (Oct. 1916): 11–12; Virginia Normal & Industrial Institute Gazette 23 (Jan. 1917): 21; Southern Workman 47 (1918): 105; Michigan Department of Health Death Certificate; obituary and account of funeral in Norfolk Journal and Guide, 30 Apr. (portrait), 7 May 1927.
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