- Faith & Family
Agnes Rolle Morton, 75, is intimately familiar with the history of Overtown. After all, it was where she was born and raised, attended school [Dunbar Elementary and Booker T. Washington Senior High, class of 1955] and is now the community where she volunteers much of her
time. She has traveled the world and lived in San Francisco for a number of years. And like Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz,” when Morton talks about Overtown, it’s clear that “there’s no place like home.”
A retired registered nurse and health educator, Morton earned a B.S. in nursing from Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University [FAMU] and then joined the U.S. Army. In fact, it was the Army that helped her complete her college degree.
“I knew I wanted to be a nurse as far back as elementary school and remember the public health nurse, Miss Grace Higgs, who was one of my earliest role models,” she said. “But she was just one of many because in Overtown you had doctors, nurses, teachers — all kinds of occupations represented and living right there in the same community. When I got to FAMU, my family struggled to pay tuition so I signed up for the Army in order to get financial help with school.”
Seeing the world in the turbulent 60s
Morton is a wonderful storyteller and history buff, describing the world in which she entered after college with vivid detail. Some of her adventures illustrate just how far Blacks, women in particular, have come since the early days of the civil rights movement.
“I came back to Miami to study for my nursing boards and then entered the Army in December 1960,” she said. “A lot of the Black nurses who came from the South like me were stationed in the South,” she said. “I guess they figured we understood the southern way of life best since we had grown up here. I was assigned to Ft. Jackson in South Carolina. Was racism alive and well? Of course! Even though we were in the midst of the civil rights movement, we were still in the South. Racism was still the prevailing order. When I was sent to Korea for 13 months, I was the only Black nurse in my unit. Imagine the TV show M.A.S.H. and you’ll have an idea of what it was like.”
On the battlefield for healthier Black lives
Morton continued her education, earning two master’s degrees. She is now a doctoral candidate at the Western Institute for Social Research in Berkeley, California. She made San Francisco her home for 40 years, retiring from the San Francisco Department of Public Health in 1998 and being cited as a community pillar by the San Francisco Foundation in 1995. She would continue her work as a community health nurse, education and activist until she felt the calling to return home to Overtown.
But Morton says she didn’t return home to rest on her laurels.
“I was away from Miami but I read my Miami Times every week except when I was assigned overseas,” she said. “My father was a Bahamian carpenter who built his home in Overtown in 1917 with his own hands. He was devastated when the City took his home by eminent domain. The people of Overtown have lost their homes, suffer from poor health and often feel like they’ve been abandoned. Our history is rich and needs to be shared and respected. Historian Marvin Dunn predicts that in 10 years Overtown will be primarily white and Hispanic — in 20 years he says it will be hard to find a Black face at all. That’s why I am so passionate about working on behalf of those Blacks trying to hold on in Overtown. People like Georgiana Johnson Bethel [one of the last living teachers from BTW], Miss Willie Pearl Porter [a RN that was a mentor and is now 101], Lena Collier and Mizie Hanna [two other RNs that were role mentors] were committed to improving the lives of children and families in Overtown. I’m on that same mission.”
By D. Kevin McNeir