Living the Blood and Fire

Jan 26, 2024

The tale of a young woman who defied "no" and selflessly worked to change the broken world around her.
- by James McMechan


With February upon us, many of us will reflect on the significant contributions made by African Americans throughout our nation's history. While giants like Frederick Douglas or Dr. Martin Luther King are immortalized for their fight against the social injustices of their day, The Salvation Army has also had a tremendous impact bettering the communities in which they serve. Over the years, countless unsung heroes have lived the "blood and fire" motto, working tirelessly in their communities to proclaim the love of Jesus. And while The Salvation Army has a beautiful history of racial inclusion today, Black Salvationists have also faced the challenges of poverty and prejudice. This is the story of one such trailblazer who lived with a selfless determination to change the broken world around her. 

In 1944, Norma T. Roberts left her job in the federal government to join The Salvation Army, applying to enter the College for Officer Training in Atlanta, Georgia. Despite having exemplary qualifications, her application was denied on racial grounds. 

The refusal did not dissuade Roberts from the genuine calling of God upon her life. She applied to The Salvation Army's Eastern Training College and was immediately accepted. After her commissioning, she began her service at the Booth Memorial Hospital in Queens, where she worked in the Women's Social Department, caring for unwed mothers. Her unwavering dedication and commitment to the task made her a force to be reckoned with, and she was remembered for being often outspoken about the rampant poverty in the slums surrounding the hospital.

"I had some kind of vision that the South needed help, and that is why I wanted to go south. I remember that so clearly.”

Despite making a difference in the lives of so many, she continued to be vocal about where she felt her proper place of service should be. In an interview, she recalled, "I had some kind of vision that the South needed help, and that is why I wanted to go south. I remember that so clearly.

She had a deep passion for serving in the racially divided Southern Territory and remained persistent in requesting a transfer. Despite her superiors' concerns about the potential for prejudice, turmoil, and physical harm, Roberts remained determined to see her transfer through. As the months passed, so did her unwavering commitment to the cause. Her pleas grew stronger every month. The more her commanders and friends resisted the idea, the harder she pushed. Eventually, Norma T. Roberts was transferred to a service center in an impoverished African American area of East Little Rock in March 1949.

The conditions she encountered were beyond deplorable. With widespread poverty, chronic unemployment, and high crime rates, most of the residents lived in dilapidated housing, lacking basic sanitation or city services. With her arrival, Roberts immediately set to work, establishing children's programs and social services. She often visited homes to counsel struggling families, providing food and necessities to those in her charge. As she led services, the poor began to flock to The Salvation Army’s doorsteps and her ministry soon drew the attention of local reporters.

“I didn’t think about accomplishing anything, I just did the work of God. I just wanted to do right.”

When news accounts began documenting the immense challenges this young officer faced, the public outcry was so great that a new community center was quickly designed, planned, and funded. The new center opened in 1952, providing a safe place for community activities and worship services. Estimates indicate that Robert's ministry touched the lives of over 6,000 souls, each one an opportunity to demonstrate the love and compassion of God. For the next 13 years, Roberts filled her days with these moments of truth, faithfully serving the residents of East Little Rock. She continued to make a vital difference in the community, even when the city cleared out over 8,000 slum homes to make way for the new Interstate highway system.

Later, she served in other areas in the south, first in Lexington, Kentucky, and later in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Eventually, Roberts joined the staff at the College for Officer Training in Atlanta, the same institution that had denied her entrance years before. Her placement earned her the distinction of being the first African American officer appointed to the school. Later in her career, she became the first African American social services secretary appointed to the Southern Territory.

Major Norma T. Roberts retired in 1985. Today, she lives a peaceful life in Fairfax, VA. Throughout her career, she has displayed a remarkable dedication to service and sacrifice. Her work transforming the racially charged landscape of Little Rock paved the way for school desegregation, equal rights, and fair housing, ensuring dignity for thousands of Americans.

While the Heavenly Father might not send us to do the work Major Norma T. Roberts did, He will give us special moments of truth to impact the lives of others. What we do with those moments is entirely up to us. One thing is certain, however: as an organization with a mission to preach the gospel to the world, we are better for the trailblazers like Norma T. Roberts. May future generations honor our faithfulness as we honor those who have forged out paths before us.

“Black Salvationists have been vital in the spiritual development of The Salvation Army from its inception in the United States. Black Salvation Army soldiers lived the Army’s “Blood & Fire” motto as they struggled at times to hold fragile communities together, sometimes amid the spilling of actual blood and in the heat of real fire.”

Warren Maye – “Soldiers of Uncommon Valor”

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