Volma Overton: Interview Transcript
The Project in Interpreting the Texas Past
Dr. Martha Norkunas, Project Director
African American Texans
Oral History Project
Interviewee: Volma Overton
Interviewer: Amy Steiger
Date of Interview: February 26, 2004
Place: Mr. Overton's home, 1403 Springdale Road in Austin, Texas
Recording Format: Analog tape
Questions developed by Amy Steiger, Spring, 2004
1) Race in the United States Military
Why was military service a significant factor in the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement? Why did people finally begin to conduct large public protests against racial discrimination? What was it like to live in a segregated city? How did it feel to be discriminated against?
Running Time: 6:45
I was in the Marine Corps. I served in the Marine Corps because we had to go to San Antonio on draft day, and I was drafted, and when I got to-they got around to all of us, or a number of us, they had their quota for the army, and they said, "Well, all we have to offer you right now are the Navy or the Marine Corps." Well, I didn't like the Navy, 'cause I didn't like the uniforms and going to sea. So we decided to go into the Marine Corps and didn't know nothin' about it. But we just found out that ... that was in '43 ... they had just let blacks into the Marine Corps in '42, And we had to go to North Carolina for training, and so it was three of us that were together and we went over. And we had to go back to San Antonio, they give you a ticket to get on the Southern Pacific Limited from LA to New Orleans. We rode into New Orleans in Pullmans. We thought this was the way it was gonna be all the way. Got to New Orleans and there were no accommodations for us to ride Pullmans to North Carolina. We had to go sit in the black car, and the black car was up front next to the coal. So if you remember then, when we rode that far, you could almost just wipe the coal dust off you.
We trained at Monford Point, North Carolina. This was all blacks, but the officers were white, and we trained and trained and trained. And after we trained, I was in an aircraft defense battalion, [with] anti-aircraft guns where we would shoot the planes down, but I was in the communications department. The gun assemblers were out in front, but we would string the lines for the commanders to communicate with all of them. And we went to California, we went to the Pacific, we went to three different islands at the time, but we would always go where the Marines had already been and had fought in a battle. They'd move from the Marshall Islands up to those other ones-Iwo Jima or somewhere. But when they moved up, we would move in and be the defense battalion, and I was never in active combat Marines, in the black community. And that's where we were, we stayed there for two years and the War was over, came home. The president, Truman, had an executive order that the military be desegregated, but we returned home and I guess we didn't feel that. Nobody asked us to stay, we were all getting out. And I returned home a PFC, a Corporal, a two-stripe Corporal. And after I got home, well, the spirit of the Corps was "Stay with us," you know, "Fight our battles in the Halls of Montezuma and the Shores of Tripoli," and [we'd] wear our dress blues, and the Marines had a lot of respect. In the Marine Corps they did, but in the Austin Community blacks didn't have it.
I was on the bus going down-I lived on 9th Street right across from Huston-Tillotson, and it was called the Oil Mill bus, the bus come down 6th Street, all the way up Congress, come up Chicon, and come up Rosewood and go around Northwestern and on back to town. So, when I got on the bus on 9th and Chicon ... I wore my dress blues down there, I was so proud of my dress blues ... and as the bus would fill up, we would fill it up, we would sit forward to the front. And when we got on to 6th and Congress, then the blacks started getting off, and the whites started getting on 'cause the bus would go on up Congress, 11th, Guadalupe out to the University. And when I got to about 10th and Congress, well, some of the blacks had gotten off behind me, and I'm still sitting there. So this driver come up to me and said, "Hey, you have to move to the back," and I was plumb proud of myself for being in the United States Marine Corps and just getting home. "You have to get up and go to the back." " What?" Well, I wasn't for making no fight then, because [we were at] 6th and Congress and the bus to the Courthouse was on 10th and Guadalupe, so I just had to walk up a couple of blocks to the Courthouse, so I got off the bus. And that let me know, you know, "We've been there, we've done that, and here you are back home and they say, 'You've got to go to the back.'" And I guess that was the influential thing that put me in the NAACP. Here I've done this, and you still got to go to the back of the bus. That was way before Rosa Parks, you know. But that was the way the thing was. So I went on and did my thing, but then I heard about the NAACP, because I didn't know much about it before then, and I got actively involved in the NAACP. And I guess as some of the people heard me talk among the NAACP ... but it wasn't a real big thing then, in Austin, a minister was president and wasn't pushing too much ... and I guess I was saying a lot.