Filed Under Education

Gravesite of Lena Beatrice Morton

Literary scholar who fought discrimination

Lena Beatrice Morton was the author of half a dozen books about literature, language, and teaching, beginning with an anthology, Negro Poetry in America, in 1925.

Morton’s books also include Farewell to the Public Schools – I’m Glad We Met (1952); Man Under Stress (1960); Patterns of Language Usage (1965?); My First Sixty Years: Passion for Wisdom (1965); and The Influence of the Sea Upon English Poetry from the Anglo-Saxon to the Victorian Period (1976).

Lena Morton was born in 1901 in Flat Creek, Kentucky, an unincorporated community in Bath County. By the time she reached high school age, the family had moved to Winchester, Kentucky. The four-year high school in Winchester was whites-only, while the Black school only offered only a limited course of study. The Morton family moved to Cincinnati in 1917 so that Lena could attend Woodward High School.

After finishing high school, Morton enrolled in the University of Cincinnati. There, she encountered casual racism from her professors, such as being asked to sit in the rear of a class while the white students were seated toward the front in alphabetical order. Morton challenged this practice politely, and successfully.

When her final semester came, it was made clear to Morton that in order to graduate, she would need to pass a swimming course. Swimming was no problem, but the Black students were allowed to use the pool only on Friday afternoons, after the white students were done for the week. The water in the pool was always changed before Monday.

“My dilemma was unbearable,” Morton wrote. “Should I refuse to attend the segregated swimming class and forfeit my degree, or should I endure the humiliating Friday afternoon classes and attain my degree?” Morton decided that she could do more good with a college degree than without, and she swam on Fridays until the course was over.

Morton graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 1922. Around this time, the family purchased a home, now gone, at 3256 Beresford Avenue in Walnut Hills. This would be the Morton family home for the next half century.

Morton attained a Master’s Degree from UC, and then she became the first African American to receive a doctorate in English from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. She taught secondary school in Cincinnati for many years, but she wanted to teach at the college level, so she accepted a position at Langston University in Oklahoma. When her mother’s  health began to decline, Morton decided that she needed to be somewhat closer to Cincinnati, and in the early 1950’s, she took a job as chair of the humanities division at Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee.

A typical event in Jackson took place one day when Morton entered a shoe store and was asked to “step right back” to the rear of the store, since the chairs up front were reserved for white patrons. Morton told the clerk that if she had to “step right back,” she would not buy any shoes. The clerk allowed her to sit up front, where she made a purchase. She asked about the policy of segregation, and the clerk said that all shoe stores in Jackson were the same. “I am from Cincinnati,” Morton told the clerk, “And I would have worn worn-out shoes until I could get back to Cincinnati before I would step right back.”

Still, Morton was skilled at keeping her cool even in situations that might have been tense. A white colleague of hers once remarked, “Miss Morton, you can get along with the Devil.” Morton later wrote,

“I refrained from telling her my development of the technique was a matter of expediency – that is, I have had so many devils to deal with I find that getting along with them helps me to maintain my equilibrium.”

Lena B. Morton died in 1981. She was buried in United American Cemetery. Records show that she is buried in Section 2, Lot 410, Grave 5. This is at the top of the hill, just north of the tombstone for Rev. George Parker. But there is no grave marker for Lena B. Morton.

Images

Lena Beatrice Morton Photographer not named, “Negro Higher Education in 1921-1922,” The Crisis (Vol. 24 No. 3, July 1922), 109.

Location

Metadata

Chris Hanlin, “Gravesite of Lena Beatrice Morton,” Cincinnati Sites and Stories, accessed October 5, 2022, http://stories.cincinnatipreservation.org/items/show/97.