Harold Norman was only twenty six years old on November 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was shot. The young African-American was an amiable fellow with a ready smile. An order-filler for the Texas School Book Depository, Harold routinely shared a myriad of jokes with fellow employees to help the day go by.
As JFK’s motorcade was scheduled to approach the Depository, located at the intersection of Elm and Houston Streets, Harold was joined by co-workers James “Junior” Jarman and Bonnie Ray Williams, all of whom planned on viewing the passing procession from open fifth-floor windows at the southeast corner of the building. In a crouched position, Harold stationed himself at the corner window, while Williams and Jarman knelt at the windows immediately right of him. It was the lunch hour and the three men had the choice of either standing with other employees who had congregated downstairs at the Depository’s main entrance, or having the entire upper floor to themselves. The latter option was a way to avoid the crowds below and, as JFK’s driver would be required to make a sharp turn from Houston to Elm Street beneath them, the commanding, bird’s-eye view each anticipated having of President and Mrs. Kennedy seemed ideal.
The motorcade finally reached Dealey Plaza. Sure enough, Harold, Bonnie Ray, and Junior were exhilarated with the panoramic sight of the handsome JFK and Jackie seated in an open blue Lincoln Continental, smiling and waving to the crowds at curbside.
“The weather,” Harold recalled decades later, “was picture-perfect; and I was surprised at how sandy-colored President Kennedy’s hair was.”
The presidential limousine had no sooner negotiated a slow turn onto Elm Street when, suddenly, three shots rang out!
The Texas School Book Depository had been built as a warehouse in 1901. The ribs in its antiquated wooden floors were wide enough in some areas to detect conversations from co-workers on stories above and below.
The first report was loud – too loud — followed closely by a second burst, then a brief delay, and finally a third explosion, all approximately ten seconds in duration. The windows trembled with the reverberations. Stunned, Harold was certain someone was shooting directly above him. The upper floors of the building shook as motes of white powdery-like dust descended upon Bonnie Ray’s head. What the three men heard overhead was unmistakable. Gunfire! –accompanied by the click-click sounds of a rifle’s bolt action. Ejected shell hulls were heard bouncing on the floor above with a ping. To Harold, who was experienced at firing a rifle, the ear-splitting resonance briefly reminded him of a segment from the popular ABC-TV television series “Combat!” He excitedly pointed upward and exclaimed, “Listen!” Bonnie Ray gasped, “No bullshit!” “I can hear the shells being ejected!” Harold urgently shouted.
The trio’s senses fired on all cylinders; their pulses, and minds, racing. What villain is on the sixth floor? Why would he want to harm President Kennedy? This can’t be happening! Harold, Junior, and Bonnie Ray, all open-mouthed at the unfolding drama, had little idea that the assassin taking beads on the nation’s president was one of the Depository’s newest employees.
With blaring sirens, screams, and utter confusion erupting in the streets below, the men hoped President Kennedy wasn’t wounded. They darted to windows on the west side of the floor in an attempt to catch a glimpse of President Kennedy’s vehicle, but the limo had already sped away from Dealey Plaza. Glancing at one another, and realizing full- well the significance of their frightening experience, Harold and Junior sprinted down to the building’s main entrance in search of the nearest policeman. The first cop they approached, Officer W. E. Barnett, was already in conversation with Howard Brennan, a construction worker who became the most important eyewitness in the plaza, having watched in horror as Lee Harvey Oswald had taken deliberate aim and fired the final shot that terminated the life of America’s thirty-fifth president. As Harold and Junior approached, Brennan recognized both as the men he observed situated in the fifth-floor windows beneath the assassin.
Harold was categorically the closest person to Oswald during the assassination sequence, merely several feet away to be exact. He was the key ear-witness to the crime, while Howard Brennan would prove the most decisive eyewitness. Few know that these men had met only minutes after Kennedy’s murder had taken place, and while several spectators in the plaza mistakenly ran in the direction of a grassy incline and railroad overpass, Norman and Brennan both pointed Officer Barnett in the accurate direction of the sniper’s nest.
On September 17, 1994, nearly thirty-one years following the tragic events in Dealey Plaza, Harold Norman passed away at Dallas’s Baylor Medical Center. He died without fanfare, his modest Dallas Morning News obituary not once mentioning the gentleman’s innocent, yet noteworthy bond to John Kennedy’s death three decades prior.
Equally unsettling is the fact that, although Harold and his fifth-floor co-workers were interviewed by Warren Commission investigators in March 1964, William Manchester’s book, The Death of a President, failed to mention them in its text or index. Manchester was a celebrated author whose 1967 work is today recognized as one of the foremost and authoritative contemporary narratives of the assassination. Why the three young African-Americans, whose testimonies were vitally essential to the most shocking historical event of the latter half of the twentieth century, were omitted, is mind-boggling!
Had today’s influx of internet and cable mass media existed in 1963, Harold Norman would not have been neglected, becoming a frequent guest for interviewers desirous of an honest recounting his harrowing experience and historical perspective. Instead, the truth was overshadowed as the American people became enamored with conspiracy theories and fictionalized docudramas promoted by a cottage industry of opportunists – some sincere – others blatant liars for profit. And while several among the latter emboldened Harold to revise his story in an attempt to suit their multi-assassin agendas, he never deviated from the truth. Thankfully, great advances in modern-day forensic computer technology have all but obliterated the ridiculous conspiratorial balderdash, thereby justifying the unfeigned ear-witness and eye-witness testimonies of Harold Normal and Howard Brennan, respectively.
“President Kennedy was a special leader,” Harold said, his voice choking with emotion only weeks before his death. “He made us feel good about ourselves.”
For anyone old enough to remember the sensation of shock, tears, and anger upon receiving the news that JFK had been shot, the moment is frozen in time. And as America moves closer to the fiftieth anniversary of this inspiring and beloved president’s senseless loss, we should also recognize Harold Norman, a good man whose traumatic proximity to the most nightmarish of historic events was, for him, especially sorrowful.