Volma Robert Overton, Sr., celebrated civil rights leader, advocate for equality in Austin Schools, and the fourth child of Nicholas and Eliza (Edmondson) Overton, was born in the community of Maha, Texas, in rural Travis County on September 26, 1924. He grew up in a family that eventually included a total of nine children.
Overton attended a small African-American school in Maha before he moved to Austin to live with relatives and attend junior and senior high schools there. He attended (Old) L. C. Anderson High School in Austin and graduated in May 1942 with a class that numbered fifty-six. Six months later he was drafted in the United States Marine Corps, where he served two years in the Pacific Theater of Operations during World War II. After the war, while he was riding on a city bus in Austin, Overton (in full military uniform) was asked to give up his seat to a White passenger; this incident profoundly influenced his life and inspired his dedication to fight for civil rights.
In February 1946 Overton met Warneta B. Hill, a native of Yoakum, who was a student at Tillotson College, (now Huston-Tillotson University). They dated steadily for three months, were married on April 16, 1946, and became parents of one boy and three girls. From 1947 to 1950 Overton attended Tillotson College where he earned a B.S. degree in chemistry with a minor in math. Within a few years of his service in the Marines, he joined the United States Army Reserves, and he served for twenty-eight years and retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Overton was employed with the United States Postal Service in 1952. He served as president of the Austin chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1962 to 1983. He participated in the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March, where he marched alongside Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1964 Overton conducted a “read-in” at a meeting of the Austin city council to protest the council’s refusal to consider an ordinance forbidding racial discrimination and creating a human rights commission. During Overton’s leadership, the Austin chapter picketed segregated businesses, integrated Bastrop State Park, and led a crusade to bring about single-member districts for Austin city council elections. He also played an integral part in establishing the local NAACP chapter’s first credit union in East Austin. In 1969 the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, the federal agency which then regulated federal credit unions, approved the NAACP’s charter for a credit union. It later merged with what became the Greater Texas Federal Credit Union.
Overton’s most important accomplishment was his work that led to the desegregation of Austin public schools during the 1970s in which he made his daughter, DeDra, the lead plaintiff in a 1970 lawsuit. The matter resolved thirteen years later when a federal court finally declared the Austin school district desegregated.
In 1979 Overton was appointed postmaster at Cedar Creek, Texas, and he served there until his retirement in l985. Overton continued his efforts to improve education throughout his life. In later years, he founded a golf tournament to raise money for scholarships to help talented minority students attend college. He received many honors during his lifetime for his service, including the NAACP Arthur B. DeWitty Award (later renamed the DeWitty/Overton Award) in 1967 and The Villager newspaper’s Austin’s Living Legends (1990). On March 25, 2004, he was one of five civil rights pioneers presented with the first LBJ Award for Leadership in Civil Rights by the University of Texas at Austin.
The book Volma—My Journey: One Man's Impact on the Civil Rights Movement in Austin, Texas (1998), authored by Carolyn Jones, chronicled Overton's achievements and dedication to the causes of equality and education. The Austin Independent School District broke ground on Volma R. Overton Elementary School on Saturday, June 24, 2006. The school, located in East Austin at 7201 Colony Loop Drive, was dedicated in a ceremony on January 25, 2009.
Overton joined First Baptist Church of Austin in 1963 and became the congregation’s first black member in the church’s 100-plus-year history. He served in the capacity as a deacon (since 1967) and lay leader and was committed to the church’s involvement in the social ministries of the Austin community. Overton persuaded members of his church to establish a mentoring program at Oak Springs Elementary, which served mainly low-income minority students.
Overton died in Austin on October 31, 2005, and funeral services were held on November 5, 2005, at First Baptist Church of Austin. He was laid to rest with military honors in the Texas State Cemetery. Volma R. Overton, Sr., and Warneta Hill Overton, his wife of fifty-nine years who succeeded him in death on August 20, 2008, are two of the few African Americans buried in the Texas State Cemetery. He was survived by their four children. Overton’s epitaph reads: “Civil Rights Activist, Humanitarian, Servant to all Mankind, Fighter for Justice for All.”