As a warm spring gave way to a hot summer in 1977, the bodies of two 23-year-old men — one Latino, one Black — were fished from the muddy waterways that define Houston’s landscape and inspire its “Bayou City” nickname. The first was José Campos Torres, a name familiar to anyone who has been around Houston for very long. The second, Norman Grundy, is remembered only by those of us who knew him.
Campos Torres’ body was recovered May 8 from Buffalo Bayou downtown. Investigations would find that six officers had arrested the young Vietnam veteran at an East End bar, beaten him senseless, then thrown him into the bayou rather than follow a booking sergeant’s instruction to take him to a hospital. Two of the officers were convicted of state charges of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced to a year’s probation; these two, along with a third, later were sentenced to a year in prison for a federal civil rights conviction. The case prompted a riot in a north Houston park a year later and prompted concerns about the relationship between the city’s police department and its communities of color that continue to this day.
On July 20, about eight miles south of the spot where Campos Torres’ body was found, a woman whose home overlooked Brays Bayou looked out her window and saw a body floating. She summoned authorities, who threw a rope over the inert figure and pulled it to shore. Using dental records, the medical examiner’s office identified the remains as those of Norman E. Grundy Jr.
A police report states that two days before Norman’s body was found, a 22-year-old man flagged down a patrol car near Interstate 45 South and told officers that his friend had “lost a wheel off of his car.” The wheel, he said, rolled into the bayou.
The man told the officers that his friend retrieved the wheel and carried it up an embankment, but lost his grip on it. The wheel rolled back into the water. The witness said his friend ran down, plunged in and swam toward it.
Then he disappeared.
Darla Morgan, a friend of Norman’s, was working that night at the Houston News Service, a short-lived startup. The police scanner in the newsroom crackled to life, and she heard a name she recognized, “Norman Grundy,” and two words that chilled her: “Presumed dead.”
“I just started crying,” she told me recently.
Some of Norman’s friends in Houston were skeptical of the official account, which deemed the death an accidental drowning. The Campos Torres case was still in the headlines; on June 28, a grand jury had indicted two of the officers involved. In this environment, any story involving police, the death of a young man of color, and a bayou was destined to arouse suspicion.
Moreover, the explanation just seemed strange. Some of Norman’s friends said they didn’t think he knew how to swim; one recalled that he was “terrified” of the water. It was a long time ago, and memories can be wrong. But even if he could swim, does it make sense that he would plunge into a bayou — twice — to retrieve a tire? Houston’s bayous were notoriously polluted at the time; even today, with improved water quality, no one swims in them voluntarily. A tire, after all, could be replaced.
I don’t recall whether I shared these suspicions. Norman and I had become close friends at the University of Houston, and the news of his death hit me hard. I had graduated the previous December and was working as a reporter for the Conroe Courier, some 50 miles north of Houston. My youthful reaction to shock and grief, I suspect, was to plunge into my work and try not to think about it.
Norman grew up in Louisiville, Ky., and moved to Houston to study journalism at UH. In the spring of 1976, his final term before graduation, he served as the editor in chief of the campus newspaper, the Daily Cougar; I was the managing editor. Our work involved many late nights overseeing final editing and production, and we hung out a lot on weekends and in other spare hours. We might have seemed an unlikely pair walking around campus — Norman a tall, athletically-built Black man, me a shorter, skinny white guy — but we forged the special kind of connection that emerges from youth, ambition, intensity of feeling, and love of a good time.
I’ve thought about Norman from time to time over the years, but he’s been on my mind a great deal recently as I watched the surge of activism that followed the May 25 death of George Floyd, whose life ended when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck. Like many white Americans, I’ve been moved by Floyd’s death and other recent events to reflect on my own attitudes about race, and on the experiences that shaped them. This line of thinking led directly to Norman, who was the first Black person I ever knew well — or at all, really. I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s in a segregated neighborhood and schools in South Texas, and my interactions with Black people were rare and brief until Norman and I met in college. Despite our youth, we knew it was nonsense to profess that we “didn’t see race.” We understood that his blackness and my whiteness had shaped our lives through different cultural backgrounds, language patterns and worldviews. Yet this was a reality we rarely acknowledged. We were a bit like a sparrow and a hawk who usually think of themselves simply as fellow birds.
One night, as we hung out in my dorm room, he suddenly looked up at me and said, “Damn, Mike. You’re getting to be my best friend. I’ll tell you anything.” His expression suggested that this realization was not entirely welcome.
Norman and I had many intimate conversations, but there’s so much I wish I could ask him now. We never talked about his upbringing in Louisville, his experiences with bigotry and discrimination, his attitudes about police. We were focused on learning how to be journalists. And we were having a lot of fun together. We lived in the moment.
I introduced Norman to Tex-Mex food, a staple of my diet before and since. He ate his enchiladas with a spoon and pronounced them tasty. On the concrete basketball courts outside the dormitory where I lived, he taught me the protocol of pickup games — “I got next” — and how to pull up for a jump shot. He tried to share the secrets of his remarkable success in attracting women, but I was a poor student.
As I recalled these experiences, I was struck by the conviction that Norman’s story had never fully been told. Brief articles reporting his death had been published in Houston’s two daily newspapers and in the Louisville paper, but these were bare-bones accounts. The stories didn’t even carry bylines — just a few paragraphs tossed off by busy police reporters, anonymous testimonials to a short life. Now, as America grapples with renewed intensity with its racial past and present, I felt that this young Black man’s death — and more importantly, his life — deserved a richer narrative. Perhaps, I thought, I should take a shot at it.
When I shared these thoughts with my girlfriend, Ruth Ann, she looked me in the eyes and said: “Norman is talking to you.” My default reaction was to scoff; a 43-year journalism career creates a thick crust of skepticism. But I found I was receptive to the idea.
Whatever its origin, this is the message I was hearing: Black Lives Matter. Norman’s life mattered.
Considering the age of the case, it was surprisingly easy to obtain records related to Norman’s death. I emailed the public information officer for the agency now known as the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, which dug into its archives and soon produced Norman’s whole file: the police offense report, a lengthy and impenetrable account of how the dental records were matched, his death certificate, and the autopsy report. It was a strange experience, 43 years later, to read the clinical description of the relaxed, smiling man I remember strolling around campus: “The body was that of a moderately decomposing, approximately 25-year-old Black man, measuring 73 inches in length and weighing 170 pounds . . . The head was symmetrical and covered with light brown hair, measuring up to 2 inches in length at the crown. The hairline was receding.” The words “light complexion” were written in pencil in a margin, with a line indicating the phrase should be inserted between “25-year-old” and “Black.”
The police report includes the names, addresses and phone numbers of three witnesses: the man who flagged down the patrol car and two teenagers who were nearby and told essentially the same story. I have been unable to locate any of these witnesses or the police officers named in the report (one of the officers’ names is indecipherable, typed over words on the form). A trail goes quite cold after more than four decades.
I recently drove to the scene, camera in hand, and clambered down to the water’s edge to try to reconstruct the sequence of events. This, too, was a frustrating exercise. The site, where the Gulf Freeway crosses Brays Bayou, looks far different today than it did in July 1977; the freeway has been widened several times, and the bayou’s capacity has been increased. Current visual cues are useless.
Norman’s younger brother, Ricky Grundy, told me that his family saw no reason to doubt the official account of his death. My inquiries had simply left me nagged by doubts and laden with regrets about all the questions I never thought to ask when I still had some reasonable chance of getting answers.
One morning a few weeks after Norman’s death, the phone rang at my desk at the Conroe Courier. When I answered, a voice that sounded vaguely familiar asked, “Is that you, Mike?”
“This is Norman. Norman Grundy.”
I had a bad moment before I realized I was speaking to Norman Grundy Sr., who had bestowed his name on his first-born child. I don’t remember much about our brief conversation, but thinking about it now, I feel honored and a bit surprised that Norman had told his father about me. He must have mentioned where I was working, as well.
A more thoughtful young man might have made a note of Grundy Sr.’s phone number and kept in touch, but at the time I didn’t appreciate the preciousness of this connection to my late friend. We never spoke again. He died in 2011, having outlived his son by 34 years.
In December 1975, when a student publications board chose Norman to be the Daily Cougar’s top editor for the upcoming term, Houston Post columnist George McElroy wrote an admiring piece about him. McElroy, who taught at UH and later led the journalism department at the historically Black Texas Southern University, was the Post’s first Black columnist and a widely admired mentor to many young journalists. In that 1975 column, he reported that Norman’s interest in newspaper work had begun when he delivered the Louisville Courier-Journal at age 10. By junior high school, McElroy wrote, Norman had “bagged many honors,” including a first-place prize in a local essay contest.
The piece continued: “Soon Grundy was tagged ‘the great Black hope’ of his poverty-stricken neighborhood, a municipal housing project adjacent to the Louisville Slugger bat factory.” The saintly young man described by McElroy bore little resemblance to the Norman I knew, who was a bit of a rogue. But McElroy, who died in 2006, no doubt felt justifiable pride in the achievements of his young protégé.
“As soon as Grundy got squared away at UH, he got involved with the campus newspaper, first as a reporter and later as assistant sports editor, sports editor and managing editor,” McElroy wrote. “Now he’s top man — the boss!”
A review of the Daily Cougar editions published under Norman’s leadership provides some clues to his values, including his views on racial issues. One of the first editorials he wrote praised the administration for naming a campus park in honor of Lynn Eusan, who had become the university’s first Black homecoming queen in the late 1960s. (She was murdered a few years after graduating.) Later in that spring semester, he republished a full page featuring a student-written poem entitled “The Bye-centennial,” which presented a Black perspective on the upcoming celebration of the nation’s 200th birthday. An editor’s note explained that the original publication “did not reproduce with satisfactory results. We feel the impact may have been lost but the message should be presented as we originally intended.”
Norman’s views on social and political issues, as expressed in his editorials, didn’t seem to fit any particular ideological mold. A piece on the proposed Equal Rights Amendment denounced cultural “stereotyping” of women but stopped short of endorsing the ERA. After a jury convicted newspaper heiress Patty Hearst on bank robbery and firearms charges, Norman criticized her “complete about face from ‘urban guerilla’ to ‘sweet Patricia Hearst.’ ” He went on: “True revolutionaries are judged by the sincerity they display under pressure, and Patty’s reversion disgraced her most of all.”
In a farewell note published in the last edition of his tenure as editor, Norman reflected: “Being editor of the Cougar was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, just for me. My graduation from college, for my parents, was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, just for them. So, at least for today, I’m definitely a winner.” He signed the piece with his student ID number.
I recently called Norman’s brother Ricky Grundy, who still lives in Louisville. We chatted for a few minutes about Norman, who was five years his senior. Ricky Grundy described his older brother as a happy child who did well in school and had lots of friends. I’m six years younger than my brother Rod, so I could relate to his description of his relationship with Norman: A big brother might give you a hard time, but you still look up to him.
“You know how that goes,” he said. “He was my older brother and you try to emulate them a little bit.” He said he was following Norman’s example when he decided to play football in school.
Norman’s parents divorced during his childhood. Ricky Grundy said Norman had lived mostly with his mother growing up, though he stayed with Norman Sr. from time to time. He said Norman chose to leave Kentucky and attend UH because he was interested in journalism and admired the program at the Houston school.
At Louisville’s Atherton High, Norman was one of 32 Black students in a school with an enrollment of 1,525, according to a Courier-Journal article published Jan. 7, 1970. The front-page story was an account of the controversy surrounding a resolution adopted by the local NAACP chapter. The group had urged Atherton’s leaders to eliminate symbols “offensive to Black students,” including the nickname “Rebels” and images of the Confederate flag.
Students quoted in the article expressed varying views, pro and con, on the proposed changes. (One young man, perhaps missing the point, said that any student who wanted to change the mascot name “doesn’t have school spirit.”) Norman, identified in the piece as “a 17-year-old Negro defensive tackle for the Rebels,” was sanguine, telling the reporter that the name Rebels didn’t bother him. He went on to say that Atherton “has a bad reputation in the Black community. I myself despised it before I came here.”
Reading this piece, I felt as if I were stuck in a time warp. The nomenclature has changed — Negro, itself an upgrade from the slur derived from it, was discarded long ago as an acceptable term for Black people, and many publications have begun capitalizing “Black.” Yet the battle over slavery-linked iconography rages on, like one of those trick birthday candles that won’t go out no matter how many times you blow on the flame. Activists around the country pull down statues of Confederate leaders and other historical figures they see as symbols of a racist culture; the Army activates National Guard troops to protect these “monuments.”
I wonder if Norman would have joined the protesters who tried to topple these statues, or the thousands who poured into the streets to express their rage over the killings of Black people by police. Perhaps not; he would be in his mid-60s now, as I am, and at high risk for COVID-19. On the other hand, he was always less cautious than I.
The last time I saw Norman was in late December 1976. I had graduated a few weeks earlier, and he had left the Beaumont Enterprise, where he had landed his first post-college reporting position, and returned to Houston after just six months. One day he called me and said he had scored two tickets to the Cotton Bowl game, scheduled for New Year’s Day in Dallas. Did I want to go?
I resisted. I was broke, I was desperately trying to find a journalism job, and I hoped to spend time that weekend with a woman who was then the object of my affections. But in the end I decided to go. I picked him up at the downtown department store where he was working on the afternoon of Dec. 31 and we plunged into rush-hour traffic.
We arrived in Dallas four or five hours later. Norman had a bottle of something, and we scraped together enough money for a fast-food meal, but there was no chance of paying for a hotel room. We pulled into a remote parking lot and slept in my car, a battered Chevy I had purchased from my brother for $75 when he joined the Coast Guard a few years earlier. The next day we made our way to the Cotton Bowl, found our seats, and settled in.
This was a big moment in UH athletic history. In its first year in the Southwest Conference, our school had won the championship and secured a spot against Maryland in this prestigious bowl game. UH won, 30–21, and my most enduring memory of the game involves a late touchdown by the Cougars. Norman and I jumped up and down, screaming; I turned to him and saw an expression of sheer joy. In that splendid moment, as cheers and applause surged through the Cotton Bowl, I was full of gratitude to my friend for choosing me to accompany him.
I was tempted to tell Norman that I loved him, but something held me back. Today, of course, I wouldn’t hesitate.
After the game, we realized we didn’t have enough money for gas to get back to Houston. Miraculously, amid the thousands in the stadium, Norman bumped into a young woman he knew, no doubt one of his many former girlfriends. She lent us $5, enough in those days to get us home. I doubt if she ever saw that money again.
I knew that the reporting job in Beaumont had not gone well for Norman, but I don’t recall that we talked about it much during our trip. I got some insight during a recent conversation with Linda Seely Gilchriest, a former colleague at the Houston Chronicle, who had worked with Norman at the Enterprise.
“You know, East Texas,” she said, as if that explained everything. “The community was as not as welcoming to a Black reporter as it would be to a white reporter.” She noted that Beaumont is only a few miles from Vidor, a smaller town long known as a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan.
At the Enterprise, Gilchriest told me, Norman was assigned to the police beat: “The editors were kind of hard on him, but they were hard on any new reporter.” He didn’t make a lot of friends, she said. He was the only Black reporter covering news at the Enterprise, she recalled, although there was a Black sports writer.
“He was very soft-spoken, but he was very clever,” she said.
Soon after his return to Houston, Norman told friends that he had given up his dream of a career in journalism. Having seen his passion for the profession when we worked together at the Daily Cougar, I can only imagine how discouraged he must have been. He quit his retail job to take a position at Southwestern Bell Telephone Company. He resigned July 5 and planned to visit his family in Louisville, according to the Houston Post report on his death. Ricky Grundy told me that the birth of a baby in the family prompted Norman’s planned visit to the city where he grew up.
Norman never met that baby, but he eventually made it back to his hometown, where he is interred in Greenwood Cemetery.
Let’s create an alternate narrative about Norman’s post-college life. In this version, he flourishes in his job in Beaumont, impresses his editors, and builds a body of work that helps him get a job at a larger or more prestigious publication. He doesn’t move back to Houston in December 1976 — why would he, when things are going so well? — and our trip to the Cotton Bowl never happens. Continuing this fantasy, we surmise that he might still decide to visit his family in Louisville in July 1977, but he’s in a more positive frame of mind when he starts the journey. It’s reasonable to think he leaves from a different place and follows a route that doesn’t take him past a body of water at the precise moment a wheel comes off his car. Indulging our imaginations even further, we can suggest that by this time he has earned enough to buy a newer, nicer car with its wheels securely attached.
This fanciful exercise would work better if Norman had been white, and therefore not a target of the racism that surrounded him in East Texas in the 1970s. My own experience is informative in this context. Conroe, where I got my first newspaper job, was hardly a bastion of racial enlightenment at that time, and I saw racist behavior in the community as I was out reporting stories. But unlike Norman, I was shielded by the armor of my white skin. And I’m still here, recently retired from a long and satisfying career as a journalist, an opportunity snatched away from Norman on a Houston freeway.
Can I say conclusively that racism contributed to my friend’s premature death? Of course not. Tragic accidents happen every day, to people of all races. Yet the effects of living every day in a racist culture are not as obvious as the pressure of a police officer’s knee on a man’s neck. In Norman’s case, the knee might have taken the form of doors closed in his face, calls not returned, muttered phrases overheard as he walked by a group of white people. As a young Black man, Norman coped with these insidious forces, survived and even excelled — until he didn’t.
Consider the arc of Norman’s short life in the context of his times, and of mine. We were the same age, born in the South in the latter stages of the Jim Crow era. We were teenagers, our sense of the wider world just beginning to form, when Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panthers in Oakland, Calif.; when sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised black-gloved fists on the medal platform at the Olympic Games in Mexico City; and when a fugitive from a Missouri prison assassinated the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as the civil right leader stood on a Memphis hotel balcony. We were finishing high school when George Wallace, a staunch segregationist once described by King as “the most dangerous racist in America,” was shot and paralyzed in Maryland.
Here are some of the things that I saw but Norman missed: Harold Washington’s triumph as the first Black mayor of Chicago. The beginnings of a national campaign against environmental racism. Lee P. Brown’s appointment as Houston’s first Black police chief, and his later election as the city’s first Black mayor. Oprah. The Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. The Million Man March. The election of Barack Obama as the first Black U.S. president, and the backlash that followed. Federal officers shoving peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters with shields, and using pepper balls, chemical grenades and smoke bombs, to clear the way for the president of the United States to pose for a photo holding a Bible in front of a boarded-up church.
Would my perspective on these events have been clearer or truer if Norman had remained in my life? I like to think we would have continued our friendship, or at least kept in touch. I’ve maintained ties with others in my small, tight circle of college friends. And through all these years, most of my friends have been white. I don’t think this is unusual. Perhaps my brief, intimate connection with this young man from Louisville, at a moment when my attitudes and worldview were still malleable, was my best opportunity to gain a deeper sense of empathy with the people who represent the legacy of America’s original sin. This might have better equipped me to support racial justice in a more active, useful way.
This is all speculation, of course. I’ll never know. Forty-three years ago, Norman Grundy and I returned from a joyful trip to Dallas, weary and broke, and went our separate ways. The young man I parted from that day might scarcely recognize the 2020 version of himself, a man on the cusp of old age, his mind and spirit altered by the events of his own life and by the history that swirled around him. In the final analysis, perhaps the most important point about Norman and Black Lives Matter is that he missed it. If every man or woman available to join this struggle is important, his premature death has meaning beyond the grief still felt, all these years later, by me and others who loved him. The greater tragedy is that his voice is absent at a time when it is most needed.