Skip to main content

Former Evanston Mayor Donates Papers to Northwestern

Alumna Lorraine Morton has been a participant in enormous social change

One might call Lorraine Hairston Morton — Evanston’s first African-American mayor and longtime Evanston public school educator — a reluctant icon. Born 95 years ago in the still very segregated South, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Morton has been a witness to and participant in enormous social change since making Evanston her permanent home in 1953.

Some of that change is reflected in papers that she recently donated to Northwestern University, where Morton earned a master’s degree in education in 1942. Morton — who enrolled at Northwestern as Constance Lorraine Hairston — fondly recalls living with five black female students in a boarding house on Lake Street owned by one Mrs. Griffith. It was at a time when African-American students could not live on campus. 

Evanston, Northwestern and the world have changed, insists Morton, who says she chooses “not to wallow in the injustices and negatives of the past” but to stay focused on improving the present. She adds that she came to Evanston for an education, and that Northwestern provided her with a good one.

“I never had a bad experience at the University,” declares Morton. “I always remembered why I was here. A university is more than just courses. It widens your mind. Northwestern opened another horizon for me. It opened doors.”

And, she adds with a smile, Northwestern is also where she met James T. Morton Jr., a bright, young man completing his doctorate in psychology and who soon became her husband. An African-American pioneer in clinical psychology, James Morton died in 1974.

Elizabeth K. Brasher says her grandmother’s motto is “never let anyone steal your joy!” And a single meeting with the ever-youthful former mayor is proof that she takes her own advice to heart. The Lorraine Morton Collection at Northwestern reflects the lifetime Morton spent creating partnerships, building bridges and solving problems with respect and without rancor.

“The collection of letters, newspaper clippings, speech texts and campaign materials is particularly strong in documenting Mayor Morton’s years of service in Evanston,” says Kevin Leonard, director of University Archives, where the collection resides. “Among the key items are her speeches, particularly as they deal with issues of diversity and inclusion.”

The Northwestern collection includes an undated essay in which Morton writes: “It was Mama who … saw to it that the laws of segregation did not make her children grow up innocent of cultural surroundings.”

Says Morton: “Mama demanded that her children attend cultural activities despite the fact that those events were then segregated. When we returned home, Papa would complain and sarcastically scold us saying ‘Paying people to segregate you.’” 

Together, the two drove home important lessons to their children — one about taking advantage of the world at large, the other about the evil of segregation. “Mama was the hammer that drove Papa to fulfill his ambition. Papa was the nail that held the resources together. They were a good team,” Morton wrote.

“I can’t think of a better place for my papers to be than Northwestern,” says Morton, who to this day is an unabashed Northwestern supporter and, as mayor from 1993 to 2009, worked hard to improve town-gown relations and succeeded in doing so.

An irrepressible optimist, Morton often says that things simply “happened” to her, and points out the accomplishments of others — black and white — who, with her, fought for open housing, desegregation and a better Evanston.

Hired in 1953 to teach in Evanston/Skokie District 65’s then all-black Foster Elementary School, Morton broke the color barrier in 1957 as the first African American to teach in a white-majority Evanston school (Nichols Middle School).

In a string of firsts, Morton also was the first black president of the Junior High School Association of Illinois and Evanston’s first black mayor. She became Evanston’s first Democratic mayor in more than 100 years, and she remains the city’s longest-serving chief.

When Evanston’s public schools began serving as a model for successful school integration, Morton — then a Chute Middle School team leader and teacher — worked as a desegregation consultant to school districts around the country. She smiles recalling a trip she and three Evanston educators took to New Albany, Mississippi, to help with that district’s efforts.

When Morton retired in 2009, after 16 years as mayor, it was her second well-deserved retirement. She already had left a productive 36-year career in District 65 schools (not to mention nine years on the Evanston City Council). In her honor, Evanston’s city hall was renamed the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center.

These days, Morton keeps a busy schedule, sitting on numerous boards, speaking to civic organizations, attending plays and concerts, serving as a deacon in her church, playing bridge, answering her ever-ringing telephone and relishing time spent with family.

“Papa always said that only a life of service is a life worth living,” Morton says. Clearly she exceeded her father’s hopes