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, and grew up in Winchester. The four-year high school in Winchester was whites-only, while the Black school only offered only a limited course of study. The family moved to Cincinnati in 1917 so that Lena Morton could attend Woodward High School.
After finishing high school, Morton enrolled in the University of Cincinnati, where she encountered, and resisted, various forms of discrimination. When her final semester came, it was made clear to Morton that in order to graduate, she would need to pass a swimming course. But the Black students were allowed to use the pool only on Friday afternoons, after the white students were done for the week, just before the pool water was changed.
“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.
Lena Beatrice Morton received a bachelor’s degree from UC in 1922. She then got a Master’s Degree from UC, followed by a doctorate in English from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. She taught secondary school in Cincinnati for many years. Then she taught college in Oklahoma, and in the early 1950’s, she became 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. “I am from Cincinnati,” Morton told the clerk politely, “And I would have worn worn-out shoes until I could get back to Cincinnati before I would step right back.”
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 didn’t reply, but she 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 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.