Art

Meet Disney's First African-American Animator, Floyd Norman (He Still Works There!)

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For Black History Month, Curiosity is highlighting the inspirational stories that you should know (but probably don't) of people who have changed the world.

If no one ever told you no, would you think to limit yourself? Floyd Norman's peers were surprised when he applied for a job at Disney in the 1950s, but the artist proved he had no reason to think twice. In 1956, Norman became the first African-American animator at Disney. And in 2017, you can still find 81-year-old Norman hard at work on the Disney campus.

Related: The Struggle And Triumph Of Hattie McDaniel, The First African-American Oscar Winner

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Where There's A Will, There's A Way

"When I was a kid, my dream was to work for Walt Disney," Floyd Norman tells Curiosity. "Maybe it was a crazy dream, but it was a dream nonetheless and I believed in it." Clearly it wasn't too lofty a goal. After just a couple of years in art school and a few applications, 21-year-old Norman landed a job in the animation department at Disney, the job he dreamed of since seeing Dumbo in the theater as a child. How's that for determination?

Norman got a job at Disney in 1956, and became the first African-American animator at the company. But he doesn't see himself as a trailblazer. "I didn't come in as a person of color, I came in as an artist," Norman says. "I didn't come in to break down barriers, I came in to get a job. I was just another ambitious kid."

Related: Shirley Ann Jackson, An African-American Physicist Of Many Firsts

Though Norman's professional career began at Disney, he has spent plenty of years at other studios working on different projects: animating for the TV shows "Fat Albert" and "Scooby-Doo," animating educational videos about African-American history, and even documenting riots from the Civil Rights Movement. But he kept coming back to Disney—despite technically having been let go several times. "This is the entertainment business—they come and go, they're off and on, movies start and movies stop," Norman said. "It's not a personal thing, it's the business of entertainment."

And while you may not have heard of Norman himself, you're probably a fan of his work. During his Disney days, Norman worked on some of the classics. He worked alongside boss man Walt as a story artist on "Sleeping Beauty," "Mary Poppins," and "The Jungle Book."

Related: The Lost Short Animated Film Collaboration Of Walt Disney And Salvador Dali

Floyd Norman strikes a pose like the statue of his once-boss, Walt.

Work Ethic Like Whoa

When Norman turned 65, Disney served him up a heartbreak when they forced him to retire, but he didn't let that slow him down. "I didn't like being retired, so I sort of came out of retirement unofficially by going back into work every day," Norman says. "Eventually they got so used to seeing me and I began doing some work for the company, it was finally decided, 'Well, why don't we just hire this guy since he's always around anyway.'"

In 2017, 81-year-old (yes, you read that correctly) Norman has what he describes as a unique relationship with the legendary studio. "I'm not really a full-time employee, but I'm no longer retired either. I'm a retired employee who still works." In addition to doing some occasional freelance work around the studio, Norman has the unofficial job description of "Floydering." It's a word coined by a colleague who smashed up "Floyd" and "loitering" to describe Norman's tendency to wander and hang around the Disney campuses when and where he can.

Norman with his colleagues in 1966 at Vignette Films, the studio where they made educational films about African-American history.

Just One Question—Why?

Even if you don't work a soul-crushing desk job, you may be wondering why someone would want to work when they don't have to. Netflix binging in a Florida resort community sounds pretty good for the rest of your life, right? Not for Norman. "Creative people, unlike insurance salesmen or account executives, simply don't retire," he says. "They don't put down their creativity and go play golf, they continue to work. That's just who we are, that's just what we do."

His work ethic is his life's secret weapon. "If you no longer remain engaged, if you're no longer using your mind and your abilities, you just sort of dry up and go away," Norman says. "Just because you're older doesn't mean you can't do anything. You can still be very productive even at the age of 81 years. I'm busier than I've ever been at age 81 and I have no intention of slowing down." Cue the thunderous applause.

His incredible story of devotion, work ethic, and passion is featured in the documentary "Floyd Norman: An Animated Life," available now on Netflix.

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Watch And Learn: Our Favorite Videos About Floyd Norman And Disney

Get A Sneak Peek At The Floyd Norman Documentary

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24 Historical Inaccuracies In Disney Movies

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. In "Mulan," there is a multi-colored fireworks display—however, multi-colored fireworks weren't developed until the 19th century. 01:41

  2. Jasmine from "Aladdin" more than likely would've worn looser-fitting clothing and a veil. 04:36

  3. Walt Disney and "Mary Poppins" author P.L. Travers never visited Disneyland together, as is shown in "Saving Mr. Banks." 05:51

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