Floyd Norman has been a huge influence on the lives of Disney lovers, even if they don’t know it. Born on June 22nd, 1935, he had an idyllic childhood in Santa Barbara, California. “I didn’t know it at the time, but my experience as a child was probably a good deal different from many, many people,” he says. “We had access to everything — good schools, concert, theater.” Due to his upbringing, he never felt that there were any real obstacles in his way. It never occurred to him that he couldn’t apply for a job simply because of the color of his skin.
His cartoonist career started in high school. A teacher of his noticed him doodling in class, but instead of scolding him, the teacher referred him to a cartoonist he knew. Bill Woggon took Norman in as an assistant, where he inked the popular Katy Keene comics for Archie Comics. But ultimately his goal was to work for Disney Studios. Disney had always been a big part of his life, in fact, according to Norman:
“I first recognized Walt Disney’s signature before I could read. I would see that famous signature on books and comics, and I asked my grandmother, ‘What is that name?’ She said, ‘That’s Walt Disney.’ I never forgot that name. I just felt like I wanted to work at the Disney Studio one day.”
When Norman applied to Disney Studios the first time, he was turned away. However, they didn’t just outright tell him no — they suggested he attend art school to get his drawing up to speed. Finally, in 1956 he was hired by Disney as an in-betweener for Sleeping Beauty. During those years at Disney, he also worked on The Sword in the Stone and The Jungle Book. Even more impressive, Norman survived a number of Disney company layoffs. According to the biographical movie Floyd Norman: An Animated Life, the trick was staying out of Walt’s eye. That trick obviously worked.
After Disney himself passed in 1966, Norman left the studio to start AfroKids Animation Studio with Leo Sullivan. There, he worked on such cartoons as Hey! Hey! Hey! It’s Fat Albert. His other non-Disney cartoons include Scooby Goes Hollywood, A Flintstones Christmas Carol, Jabberjaw, and Alvin and the Chipmunks, among others.
Norman did return to Disney Studios in the 1970s, and he hasn’t slowed down since. Some of the more recent projects he’s worked on include Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Mulan. Even when they tried to get him to retire at age 65, he politely refused. Now 82, he still shows up to the studio every day, and he still puts out work.
Norman never thought of himself as a trailblazer, either — he was just a kid looking for a job. But being the first African American artist at Disney — and staying there for decades — is an amazing accomplishment.