Benjamin White Norris (1819-1873) was a one-term congressman who represented Alabama’s Third Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1868 to 1869. The most important legislation he voted on was in favor of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which granted freedmen the right to vote. Norris moved to the state following the American Civil War to serve in the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. He was considered a “carpetbagger,” a derisive term for northerners who settled in the South for business and political opportunities.
Norris was born in Monmouth, Maine, on January 22, 1819, to James Frederick and Mary White Norris; he had seven siblings. Norris attended college preparatory school at Monmouth Academy then graduated from Waterville (present-day Colby) College, also in Maine, in 1843. Following college, he taught at a seminary school and worked at a grocery store. Norris was a delegate to the Free Soil Party convention in 1848 in Buffalo, New York. The Free Soil Party opposed the expansion of slavery into the western territories. The following year he went to California in search of gold. After returning to Maine, Norris studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1852. He settled in Skowhegan, where he married Abby S. Miller. The couple would have two daughters. Norris worked as a land agent for the Maine government from 1860 to 1863.
Oliver O. Howard In 1864, Norris served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention. During the Civil War, he was a paymaster in the Union Army. Following the war, he relocated his family to Mobile, Mobile County, where he worked for the Freedman’s Bureau from May 1 to August 2, 1865, also as a paymaster. In the Freedman’s Bureau, he served under Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, who was also from Maine and attended Monmouth Academy.
Following passage of the Reconstruction Acts in 1867 during the period of Congressional Reconstruction, Alabama was assigned to the Third Military District under the direction of Gen. John Pope. While living in Wetumpka, Elmore County, Norris became a registrar for the Twentieth District, representing Elmore County, one of 44 districts in the state. In this capacity, he served as a delegate to the constitutional convention in Montgomery in 1867. Under the Reconstruction Acts, each southern state was required to draft a new state constitution and upon approval by Congress would be admitted back into the Union. A majority of whites boycotted the early 1868 popular vote, thus preventing its passage. It was subsequently approved by the U.S. Congress after the majority participation provision was removed.
With the new constitution ratified, Alabama was readmitted into the Union in June 1868. Norris was elected as a Republican to represent Alabama’s Third Congressional District, which had been inactive during the war and then consisted largely of the counties in east central Alabama. He served for less than a year but supported the Fifteenth Amendment, which forbids state or local governments from passing laws intended to deny citizens of their right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” He lost a close election to fellow Republican Robert Stell Heflin, a native of Georgia. Norris died in Montgomery in 1872 and is buried in South Cemetery, Skowhegen, Maine.