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Lorraine Morton, first African-American mayor of Evanston, saw a century of progress

Northwestern alumna who led desegregation efforts, locally and nationally, died Saturday

Principal Lorraine Morton
Principal Lorraine Morton pictured with Haven Middle School students

Northwestern University alumna Lorraine Morton, the first African-American to serve as mayor of Evanston and a long-time Chicago area icon of public service who advocated for justice and equal treatment, died Saturday, Sept. 8. She was 99.

Services will be held Friday, Sept. 21 and Saturday, Sept. 22 and are open to the community. Open visitation will be held on Friday, Sept. 21, from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., at First Church of God Christian Life Center, 1524 Simpson St., Evanston. The funeral service will take place on Saturday, Sept. 22, 11 a.m., at Alice Millar Chapel, 1870 Sheridan Rd., Evanston. 

Interment following the funeral service will take place at Sunset Memorial Lawns, 3100 Shermer Rd., in Northbrook.

Morton died just three months before her 100th birthday, but she lived through a century defined by Civil Rights battles and other struggles in which Morton was a strong and ever-present voice for equality. She was Evanston’s longest-serving mayor.

After earning a master’s degree from Northwestern in education in 1942, Morton went on to become the first African-American teacher to break the color barrier at an all-white Evanston middle school and later Evanston’s first African American mayor, serving four terms, from 1993 to 2009.

She was also an esteemed friend, good neighbor and collaborative partner of Northwestern in a relationship that spanned almost eight decades. She donated many of her papers to the University, and the Lorraine Morton Collection at Northwestern reflects the lifetime Morton spent creating partnerships, building bridges and solving problems with respect and without rancor.

“Lorraine Morton was a remarkable woman and a great Northwestern alumna,” Northwestern President Morton Schapiro said. “She was a devoted educator, a groundbreaking principal in Evanston schools and a tireless and leading advocate for desegregation, locally and nationally.”

Service, whether to her country, community, her profession or Northwestern University, defined Morton’s life.

“She always said that her parents taught her that service was what made life worthwhile, and she lived that value in an exemplary way,” Schapiro said. “We will miss her enormously, but her legacy will live on long after she leaves the stage.”

Former Northwestern President Henry Bienen, who worked with Morton for many years when she was mayor, said of his friend, “Lorraine Morton was a good, personal friend and a friend to Northwestern University. She was a fine mayor and a fine person and an esteemed alumna of Northwestern. It was a pleasure to work with her and to know her during my tenure as president. I mourn her passing as all who knew her do.”

Born the youngest of 10 children on Dec. 8, 1918, as Constance Lorraine Hairston, in the still very segregated Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Morton has been a witness to and participant in enormous social change.

In an interview Morton gave in 2007, she fondly recalled living with five black female students in a boarding house on Lake Street, at a time when African-American students could not live on campus.

In spite of the discrimination she experienced, Morton carried no resentment. Evanston, Northwestern and the world changed for the better, said Morton, who chose “not to wallow in the injustices and negatives of the past” but to stay focused on improving the present.

“I never had a bad experience at the University,” she said. “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.”

Northwestern is also where she met James T. Morton Jr., a bright, young man completing his doctorate in psychology who would become her husband.

After a stint in Tuskegee, Alabama, the couple returned to Evanston in 1953.

Morton became a teacher in the District 65 school system, while her husband became a clinical psychologist at Evanston Hospital. James Morton died in 1974.

Morton began her teaching career in Evanston at Foster Elementary School, then an all-black school, and later broke the color barrier in 1957 as the first African American to teach in the white-majority Nichols Middle School. She taught at Chute Middle School, and she was principal of Haven Middle School for 12 years. Morton also served as Alderman for Evanston’s Fifth Ward from 1982 through 1991 before running for mayor.

She was a leader in the national desegregation effort and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In a speech to participants gathered for the Women of Color Educational Summit in 2000, Morton spoke specifically to the plight of African American women.

“We are no longer placed in the position of the granddaughter who, after the first day of school was asked what she learned. ‘To be quiet,’ she replied. We are now recognized voices that will be heard,” she said.

In giving many of her public papers to Northwestern, Morton was honoring a place that gave her opportunities.

“The collection of letters, newspaper clippings, speech texts and campaign materials is particularly strong in documenting Mayor Morton’s years of service in Evanston,” said 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.”

Said 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,” said Morton, who until her death was 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 said that things simply “happened” to her, and pointed out the accomplishments of others -- black and white -- who, with her, fought for open housing, desegregation and a better Evanston.

“My present position is one of which I am especially proud. Proud not of me personally, but proud of the citizens of Evanston, who did not let race, age or party affiliation prevent them from electing the first African as mayor, and, after 130 years, the first Democrat,” Morton said in a speech given to participants in a Northwestern leadership council.

Services are pending.

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