— By Joi-Anissa Russell
No denying when she enters a room. Her 1000-watt smile lights up the entire space. She is a force to be reckoned with and her energy is unsurpassable. She took a road less traveled and broke two barriers. Lorraine H. Morton became Evanston’s second female mayor, the first African-American and the first Democrat to step into this role from 1993 to 2009. While many challenges presented themselves during her tenure as mayor, she did not allow things to break her spirit. As Morton says with pride, “Race and the antagonism that people had, never kept me from doing what I wanted to do.” But let’s take a step into the past to find out how Morton’s upbringing shaped who she is today.
Lorraine Hairston: The Beginning
Lorraine was born in Winston-Salem, NC on December 8, 1918 to Keziah Staples Hairston and William Patrick Hairston. Her mother raised nine children and she was the youngest of the nine. There were 10 children total but the third child, Lois, died as an infant. Today, she has no surviving siblings.
Her father worked at the Winston Mutual Life Insurance Company as he was an “old head” in establishing the insurance company and was also established in real estate. Lorraine’s father came to Winston-Salem when the town was still young. At a time when whites were coming there as well, her dad had been a shipping clerk in Virginia in a Tobacco warehouse. Her mother had been a school teacher in Stewart, Virginia, her father was a resident of Spencer, Virginia.
In an effort to instill pride of family history, her father would take family members to Virginia to see where he grew up. Lorraine’s dad was born in a log cabin and as an adult, tried to buy the land that his family thrived on but ‘the man would not sell it to him.’ The owner vowed he would never destroy the property or the log cabin. And he did not.
Eventually, Lorraine’s father moved away from Spencer, Virginia. His first job in Winston was as a Sexton in a church and that meant his job was to clean the church. A group of men including her dad came together to use their talents to start an insurance company. A lot of blacks were gaining strength economically and the insurance company took off as an amazing business venture.
Lorraine’s oldest sister came aboard the insurance company as secretary. Mr. Bloom, her father’s friend, headed the company as president. As Lorraine shares, “Papa was the director of the agents of the company.” Later, Mr. Bloom passed. Then Mr. Hill, her father’s partner in real estate, became the president. Her father later became the treasurer. The family laughed because they said her sister was always the boss because she knew the business and the people and was very influential in the growth of the company. Back in those days there were no employment benefits. So Mr. Hairston, after retiring, became a Vice President of the company in order to maintain his salary. Her sister became the treasurer. Lorraine’s brother went to West Virginia State to get a degree in printing so he could print their policies. As death took many officers, the brother became treasurer.
The Hairston’s and Hill’s were committed to keeping family members employed but a series of family deaths interfered with consistent leadership. Finally, Mr. Hill’s son became president of the organization. The Winston Mutual Life Insurance Company grew to the point of the company buying land to build a new office building. After Lorraine’s family left the insurance company, Golden Gate Insurance in Los Angeles bought Winston Mutual Life Insurance Company. Eventually, Hill accepted an executive position with Golden Gate.
Lorraine arrived in Evanston in 1953 to attend Northwestern University. As a student there, she met her husband, James, while he was studying for his doctorate degree at Northwestern. James was completing his doctoral degree on a General Education Board fellowship. He was offered fellowships to Northwestern and Harvard. However, he chose the Northwestern fellowship. Morton laughs heartily as she says that she and James ran a household for nine months on his general education board salary that was only $100 per month. They had a summer romance and got married in December 1941 while still studying to obtain their degrees. Both earned their degrees in August 1953, James his Ph.D. and Lorraine her Master’s.
She describes her first experience upon coming to Evanston. “My first impression of Evanston was that there were not a lot of Black professionals here as there was in Winston-Salem [North Carolina].” She explains with earnest why that was her first impression.
“Business was booming in downtown Winston-Salem. There was a black barbershop. A group of black men started a bus route that went through all the black neighborhoods.” Morton says, “I never grew up riding in the back of the bus because we had our own bus company in Winston-Salem, and it cost five cents to ride it. People who come from communities that have seen that type of vitality and come from parents who put a premium on education, made all types of sacrifices for their children. It was the era when just about everybody went to college. Blacks sacrificed every dime they had to send their children to college. In my community, more black teachers had Master’s degrees than whites because there was a dual salary schedule. Whites and blacks did not receive the same salary. In order for blacks to receive a comparable salary, you had to have a Master’s. There was an influx of blacks out of Winston-Salem to get a higher education and then they returned to Winston to teach school.”
The Early Years in Teaching (1955-1989)
Morton wanted to teach in a junior high school, so she was sent to Foster School to teach where only one or two white kids went to school. Staff was mixed: Joe Hill, Gladys Sally, Eddie Lee Sutton, Wendell Lanton, Lawrence Poston, Alice Robinson. After a year, Morton was told that no black teachers had ever taught in the summer school of Evanston. I came from a background where you fought for civil rights. I went to speak with Dr. Chute about the fact that no Negroes had taught in Evanston summer schools. I’ll never forget the expression on his face. He seemed so pleased. As I interpreted it later, knowing his interest in the desegregation of schools, it was as if he said at last someone is willing to come in and break this ice! And obviously, I got the job!”
After two years of teaching at summer school, she went out on maternity leave. She was asked to come to the central office and was told she was being assigned to Nichols School. She did not want to go to Nichols (and her opportunity to break the color line) and wanted to return to Foster since she lived a block away from Foster and had just had a baby.
A close friend of Morton, Virginia Dues, taught at Foster. Dr. Chute planned to place Virginia at Willard School with an entirely white staff. One of the white teachers at Willard told Morton that at the Willard School Faculty meeting, the staff stated that the community would not accept Virginia. So when Morton was being sent to Nichols to break the ice and the racial barrier, she went to see Principal Michael Ryan and asked him if Nichols was planning to have a faculty meeting regarding Morton’s working there and he said no. Morton had a very pleasant working experience working there with 7th and 8th graders.
She was then appointed Chair of Language Arts at Nichols then Chair of Language Arts for District 65. For these leadership positions, she did not receive additional salary. Morton applied for track movement of which there were five tracks in order to document her successes. She was in the first group of teachers who received merit pay, completed five tracks, and the Evanston Review documented the achievement! However, Morton did not think she had done anything special to receive merit pay.
Later on Chute school was being built and designed for team teaching per the school board, so Dr. Chute sent Morton to Chicago to a seminar to learn about team teaching to prepare her for a position as Team Leader. She taught classes for a 1/2 day and then was team leader for the remainder of the day. Her position later included the role of test coordinator for the school. During this time, Morton’s husband’s died.
She received a call from School Board Member Rachel Golden and asked if she thought of being principal at Haven. Morton felt Haven had too many problems and should be closed and made into an administrative building. Morton knew she would lose money working as a principal. Track five teachers were paid more than beginning principal. Golden said you are the only person I know that can shape up the kids, parents and the teachers. Morton said that was a challenge but thought it might be interesting to do this. She submitted an application to the personnel office.
Joe Hill was superintendent of schools at the time. The first day he took Morton to the school, she describes this scene;
“The halls were painted a dark blue. The entrance way was in orange. I felt like I was walking through a tomb. I walked into the principal’s office. There was a long, two shelf bookcase with the doors hanging off. There was a nail in the wall. The carpeting in the outer office was black. Joe brought me into the office. I looked around; I didn’t even sit down. He gave me the keys. When Joe left, I left. I told my daughter I had made a serious mistake. I cannot go to work in a place like that. She said “Well mama you’re in it now. You just have to go back in there and stick with it.” I came back the next day, took a tour of the building and saw what a beautiful building it was. I learned that if a kid knocked down an inside door, they would take the door down as well as other furniture. That was the mentality. Doors and furniture were kept in the storeroom. My first official act was to take custodians out of a windowless room and put them in a room that was built for custodians. Then, with the elp of the school district, I had the interior of the building painting, I had the fireplace cleaned, and restored the building. The staff just joined right in with me. The teachers had been maligned but they were good teachers.
There were major discipline problems because 900 kids were moving through the hall at the same time. I devised a new schedule that gave teachers more planning time and things turned around well. We started entering contests and so many of our children came out in first place and many in the area of English. While I was there, one student won the national math competition. Our athletics department improved. The cheerleading squad was revived. I have pamphlets from the state showing the test scores of the kids at Haven that they were better than other middle schools except in math. Throughout Evanston, the blacks kids were dispersed to different elementary schools but all of them came back to Haven for sixth and eighth grades. . . Haven scores made a lie out of everybody who said if you put black kids there it will bring everybody down. And it didn’t. Those teachers worked so hard!”
As an educator for numerous years, Morton provides her honest opinion on how some agenda items need to be challenged. In regards to supporting children with breakfast programs at the school, Morton believes in attacking the root of the problem and does not believe that schools need to take on the role of parent. Morton said as a school administrator, she would send the school social worker to the child’s home to find out why the student was not eating. In addition, she has a strong belief that the resources used for summer school could be shifted to add more staff to the school year to support parents and students. Morton also wants the history curriculum to be shook-up. She shares we must “teach kids that there just wasn’t slavery in America but slavery was practiced by various races, in order` to keep them [African American children] from getting an inferiority complex.”
At the end of the day, she says that the quality of teaching and administrators are key. “It is not about the length of the school day.”
In 2009, Evanston’s city hall was renamed to the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center
Mayor Lorraine H. Morton (1993-2009)
The path to mayor “was a big surprise” says Morton, who was also an alderman for a time. She got involved in politics because the community asked her to run for mayor. Morton did not want to run against Rev. Norwood since the community had already asked him to petition for the office. She did not agree with running a “black against a black.” She only decided to run for mayor when she learned that Rev. Norwood was not running. She learned this on a Sunday.
On a Tuesday, she came back to her home to find it filled with civic and business leaders, black and white. Morton did not feel that the community could get enough signatures to get her name on the ballot. The community members thought differently. Morton believes that Dennis Drummer was involved in getting her name on the ballot but she has no proof. There were a total of five folks running for Mayor including Morton.
In order for Morton to be on the ballot, she had to have enough individuals to sign her name on for the petition process. The petition process gave you the right to run. She can’t recall how many names she needed to get on the ballot but she did it. Morton recorded names of all the people who gave her money to run and wrote personal “thank you” letters to them.
At times, Morton played mediator as Mayor. She feels that being herself got her to where she is now. “I’ve always been me. If I make a decision and it is my decision and it’s wrong, I can correct it or apologize for it. But if I do something because somebody else told me to do something, it becomes hard to straighten it out . . . Stand by what you believe in.”
Morton believed in the people and the act of service to the community. She wanted to be certain that she always led with truth and spoke with the truth as mayor and as a member of the community. “You can’t be false as mayor and get away with it because eventually people will know and they won’t like it and can’t depend on you.” Morton tried to veto a budget on several occasions because she knew the impact it would have on the community members. The council did not go along with her. She essentially followed her truth. One of the truths she followed was not supporting increased taxes to the community. However, she did ask that the City pay non union members the same salary as union members when doing the same job. In the end, the Council agreed to a partial payment. She never understood the full dynamics of the decision because the City had the money to do what she requested.
A great friend of Morton’s, gave her the words to veto the budget. However, behind the scenes, her friend had been working with the third ward alderman to keep his job. During a council meeting, he sided with the third ward alderman to pass a budget that would lead to rising taxes for an already struggling community. Morton said to the council, “There is something very wrong going on here tonight and you all could have given me the courtesy to let me have finished my statement and look over the budget.”
The next morning, a confident on the council called Morton and said that the then City Manager had called up aldermen, police and firemen’s union leaders to support her and attend the council meeting. The City Manager called Morton to apologize for her actions the next day. Morton said to her that you have been out a lot because of your illness and the City Manager took her suggestion.
Despite a few adversarial meetings, Morton truly enjoyed being mayor and being with people. Morton appointed the first black to the Board of Commission. Being the voice for the people and a supporter was important to Morton. Family was Morton’s main support system while in office. Morton sought advice from friends and family to get what she needed because she felt that you could not be an expert in everything.
Mayor Morton appointed Elizabeth Tisdahl to fill an unexpired term of an alderman. When she decided to retire, she was thinking of a succession plan. Reflecting upon Tisdahl’s work, she said that Tisdahl had a track record of helping so many people in the Evanston community through financial support as well as human support. Tisdahl had volunteered and supported schools even when she did not have any children at the school. As Morton puts it, “Tisdahl is a very kind and generous woman but she does not boast her accomplishments. Its illustrated in her uncontested second term as Mayor.”
In 2009, Evanston’s City Council voted to rename the building to the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center. In 2012, the Council commissioned a portrait of Lorraine by artist Richard Halstead and was unveiled at a special reception in April, 2013 in the council chambers. “I felt overwhelmed and honored. . .” she said.
Words of Wisdom
Morton shares that no matter what position you hold that being prepared is key. “The day has passed when blacks get jobs because companies are afraid they are going to get in trouble for not hiring blacks. You must be prepared. Also, make it a point to not get talked about for not being competent.”
Finally, many wonder what keeps that 1000-watt smile so glorious. Morton’s shares her secret. “I have a daughter and two grandchildren that I adore more than I should and spoil more than I should but I call it building memories.”
Sources: Lorraine H. Morton, interviewed by Joi-Anissa Russell on April 8, 2013, and archived at the Shorefront Legacy Center. Additional information from audio recordings by Shorefront in 1997 , and archived at the Shorefront Legacy Center. Photograph of Mayor Morton © 2008 Evanston Photographic Studio for the Shorefront “Portraits of a Community” collection. Photo of Morton c1940s by James Morton, Shorefront photographic collection. Photo of Morton, daughter and granddaughters during the portrait dedication at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center by Shorefront © 2013.