BLACK HISTORY MONTH: Calling for equality

Z.C. Morton (at left) with Alberta Guy Despot in an undated photo.

“We are hopeful for better conditions,” Zelda Carter Morton wrote in 1949 about Louisa County’s schools for Black students.

For Morton and other Black educators, better conditions meant better classroom equipment;  fair salaries for teachers; money to hire librarians and teachers of home economics and physical education; and reliable transportation for students.

Morton’s hope for better conditions was reinforced with consistent action: She advocated fiercely for education for Black children.

Morton was born in 1874 in the Green Springs to Andrew and Sarah Carter, who were born into slavery on farms in the area. After Emancipation, the couple stayed in the area, and Andrew Carter eventually purchased land with Thomas Watson, a former enslaver who once considered Carter his property. Watson contributed money to Morton’s college education in 1892.

Morton attended what is now Virginia State University, earning a degree as an educator. After graduation, she taught at schools in Virginia and West Virginia, and returned to Louisa County by 1910.

She taught in Louisa schools and noted in a 1949 letter to fellow educator Paul Behrens that schools for Black students were “usually in homes or churches.” She cited a two-room building at Mechanicsville, near where she had grown up, as an exception. It was the best in the district, she said, until one of its two rooms deteriorated.

“When this writer returned to her home and seeing the condition, she determined to do something, so remained to see a school built,” Morton wrote. She organized for better learning conditions for the Black community, and in 1919, a three-room schoolhouse was built to replace the original Mechanicsville school.

In 1926, Morton became the second Jeanes Supervisor in Louisa, succeeding Lucille Holt. In this position Morton oversaw Black schools and served as a leader for the local Black community as a whole. She fought for higher salaries for teachers and more professional development opportunities.

Morton remained Jeanes Supervisor until 1945. Edythe Carter, and subsequently Alberta Guy Despot, served in that role between 1945 and 1963.

“She would talk to you just like a mother,” said Sarah Winston, who worked as a young teacher under Morton’s leadership, recalled in an interview with the Louisa County Historical Society in 2007. “We were all young then and we’d listen to every word she said.”

Despite many challenges, Morton’s continuous dedication to the Black community led to better salaries for teachers and better learning environments for students. She retired in 1945, but her legacy continued.

The Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education declared segregation unconstitutional in 1954, but Louisa County was slow to integrate, not doing so until 1970.

In 1960, a new elementary school was opened for Black students, named after the woman who fought for Black students, teachers, and the community: Z. C. Morton Elementary School. This new school was the largest Black elementary school and shared grounds with A.G. Richardson High School.

Louisa County Public Schools integrated under pressure from the federal government, which advised segregated school systems that they risked losing their funding. After integration, Z.C. Morton Elementary School and A.G. Richardson High School became Louisa Intermediate School, losing their association with these pathbreaking educators.

The two buildings were later connected and renamed Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, commemorating the third president, founding father, and slave owner.

Much of what is documented about Morton and Black history in Louisa comes from oral histories from community members.

“A lot of important aspects of Black history are not told in the written record,” said Karleen Kovalcik, Louisa County Historical Society executive director. “This makes oral histories absolutely critical to accurately capture our history for future generations.” The society is engaged in an ongoing effort to interview people in the community to preserve local Black history.

Tags

Recommended for you