Norman R. Seay, a longtime civil rights leader, educator and advocate for Alzheimer’s disease research, passed away Tuesday, September 17, 2019 in St. Louis. He was 87.
“He was a true warrior for freedom, equality and civil rights whom I stood with many times as we confronted the bigotry and oppression of segregation in St. Louis,” said William (Bill) Clay, retired U.S. congressman. “He was a true hero in this community who suffered and sacrificed much for the cause of civil rights and equal opportunity.”
Seay was a high school student in 1948 when he helped organize the Committee of Racial Equality, which ultimately became the St. Louis arm of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. In 1963, Seay helped lead the protest at Jefferson Bank & Trust Co., which refused to hire African Americans for white-collar positions. Seay spent three months in jail for participating in those protests that resulted in jobs for African Americans in St. Louis banks and financial institutions.
“Whatever task Norman would volunteer for, he would be highly organized, timely, and professional,” said St. Louis civil rights icon Percy Green II.
Because of Seay, St. Louis is credited with being one of the first cities to commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a municipal holiday. In 1970, two years after Dr. King’s death, Seay organized the MLK Holiday Committee. The federal holiday observance didn’t exist until 1986.
“Norman R. Seay’s life was the embodiment of an unselfish life of purpose. He was an unrelenting champion for change, as well as a valued personal friend,” said Donald M. Suggs, publisher and executive editor of The St. Louis American and president of the St. Louis American Foundation. “Norman was a stirring and dignified leader who leaves a legacy of sacrifice and the pursuit of increased opportunity for others.”
Virvus Jones, the city’s first African-American comptroller, was in high school when he met Seay.
“I was sophomore at Sumner High School in 1962,” Jones said. “He enrolled me in a program that the Ford Foundation ran. I got a part time job at the People’s Hospital that helped me and my family survive. He understood the nexus between poverty and crime.”
He also understood something that younger activists today have taken up as their cause: the need to change the way the black community is policed, as Green recalled. “Norman will be remembered for attending nearly every St. Louis Police Board of Commissioners' meeting in an effort to correct police brutality against black people,” Green said.
Political strategist and American columnist Mike Jones remembered Seay for more than his contributions to the movement and dedication to the community he loved so dearly.
“If asked about Norman R. Seay, my first thought wouldn’t be his lifelong commitment to civil rights and social justice,” Jones said. “It wouldn’t be his life of service on behalf of the black community.” Rather, what first came to mind when Jones heard Seay had passed was “his intelligence, his integrity, his generosity of spirit. I can truthfully say something about him that can be said about very few people: I never heard him say a harsh word about anybody, and I’ve never heard anybody speak ill of him.”
U.S. Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay (D-Missouri), whose earliest memories include seeing Seay and his father standing side by side at the Jefferson Bank protests in 1963, concurred. “Norman R. Seay was an exceedingly kind man with a brilliant intellect and a strong and courageous heart,” Clay said.
Seay was born on February 18, 1932 in St. Louis, the oldest of three children born to Mary Webb. A proud product of Saint Louis Public Schools, Seay was a graduate of Vashon High School and Stowe Teachers College.
Seay was a lifelong member of the Urban League movement as a board member, president of the Federation of Block Units, volunteer, donor and partner.
“His legacy of service and leadership will live on for generations,” said Michael P. McMillan, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, who was first mentored by Seay as a student activist at DuBourg High School. “The African-American community of St. Louis continues to benefit from the lifetime of service that he provided as a role model.”
From 1987 to 2000, Seay directed the University of Missouri St. Louis’ Office of Equal Opportunity, where he started programs for Asians, Native Americans, women and women faculty. Seay received an honorary doctorate from UMSL in 2010.
In 2015, Seay received the Rosa L. Parks Award from Washington University in St. Louis. Seay was a longtime memory study participant at WUSTL and led the African-American advisory board of the Charles F. and Joanne Knight Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. He helped the center steadily attract a more representative participant group that allowed researchers to investigate the roots of racial differences in Alzheimer’s disease. The School of Medicine at Washington University has an annual lecture series named in his honor, which brings together health professionals, researchers and others involved and interested in topics related to Alzheimer’s disease and minorities.
There is also a street and a park named in his honor in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood.
In addition to the Urban League, Seay’s lifetime memberships included the NAACP and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.
Seay resided in his family’s home at 3032 James Cool Papa Bell (formally Dickson) Ave. from 1937 until his death. He was a dedicated lifelong worshipper at True Light Missionary Baptist Church. The church is located two blocks east of his home.
For so many individuals who crossed his path and greeted him, they will remember Seay’s warm smile and response, “I shall not complain.”
Seay is survived by his sister Barbara J. Webb; his brother Kenneth (Maggie) Webb; nieces Janelle M. Nichols, Karen Webb and Kimberly Webb; nephews John A. (Nicole) Nichols Jr. and Norman C. Walker; and a host of family and friends.
Seay donated his body to Alzheimer’s research at Washington University St. Louis. A memorial service is being planned.
As Virvus Jones said, “Norman R. Seay and St. Louis civil rights will forever be synonymous.”
As Bill Clay said, “I can honestly say that Norman R. Seay’s life is a metaphor of what a life of dedication and determination can be for others to follow and imitate.”