It can feel dishearteningly familiar to find a woman whose initial identity is tied to her husband or her father. In many entries in history databases, ZerNona Stewart Black is identified as the “wife of a civil rights leader.” Wives rarely just stay at home, and if you dig deeper, you often find that they were activists in their own right, even if they are overshadowed by the men in their lives in modern accounts.
Black was born on February 7, 1906, in Muskogee, Oklahoma, to James and Juanita Wootan Stewart. Black’s mother died a few months after her birth. Black’s father opened a “colored” outdoor movie theater as well as tailor shops to help support the family while Black went to public school, graduating and then attending Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. At some point, her father moved east as well and opened a tailor shop in New York City, but it is unknown if he and Black lived together at any time while she was in school.
Black earned her bachelor’s degree in speech and communication from Emerson College. While there, she seems to have joined Alpha Kappa Alpha, an African-American sorority with over one thousand chapters worldwide in the 21st century. While she did not earn a graduate degree, Black continued to take graduate classes at several schools, including the University of Colorado, Indiana University, Our Lady of the Lake University, and Trinity University. She took a faculty position at Langston College back in Oklahoma. There she headed the drama department and taught leadership development skills on top of her classes in speech and communication. Later in life she would return to academia and taught at St. Philip’s College in San Antonio, Texas.
She was apparently active with the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) and in the early 1940s, moved to San Antonio to operate their USO for Black Military members when both the USO and the YWCA were still segregated. Black would live the rest of her life in San Antonio, where she became a well-respected community activist.
She met her husband, Claude William Black, Jr., even though he was a minister in Corpus Christi, Texas, and the two cities are over 140 miles apart. The two were married in 1946. By 1949, the reverend moved to San Antonio and became a pastor at the Mt. Zion First Baptist Church. Black was very involved in the church, and while her husband was pastor, she worked in various facets of church life, including teaching Sunday and Vacation Bible School and heading the drama ministry for the church.
Black continued to volunteer with the YWCA as it became inclusive, even serving twice as chair for their Pine Street location. She also volunteered with the National Council of Negro Women. But Black’s two main social concerns seem to have been the young and the aged. She volunteered with organizations such as Jack and Jill of America, Inc. and the Mothers Service Organization of San Antonio, whose foundation is credited to her husband. Black also helped with several senior community organizations including Health, Inc. and Senior Opportunity Services.
Black was known for her attention to detail in all that she did. The Coates Library at Trinity University has a collection of the papers, photos, and other documents from Black’s and her husband’s life’s work. Among the collection are Black’s planners and notebooks with details about every aspect of the events she helped run or volunteered with and their numerous trips around the world.
While doing all of this work for her community, Black also had two children. She died the day before her 59th wedding anniversary, on January 24, 2005, and was survived by her husband for another four years. Just three days after her death, Black was honored by the Texas Statehouse by unanimous vote for her lifetime of service. The Rev. Claude and ZerNona Black Scholarship Endowment Fund was established and is maintained by the city of San Antonio in memory of the work that Black and her husband did.