Compressing 99 years of a person’s life – many of them lived in the public area – into 45 minutes of film was a challenging but joyful task for the trio of Evanstonians who undertook it: Dino Robinson, founder of Shorefront Legacy Center, Steve Jordan and Genie Lemieux, owners of Evanston Photographic Studios and members of the Shorefront board of directors.
More than 100 people attended the premiere of the documentary “Lorraine H. Morton: A Life Worthwhile” on June 29 at Northwestern University’s Segal Visitors Center.
Chip Ratliff, President of Shorefront, described how he met her when he and his uncle, both musicians, were getting ready to play background music for an event. Ms. Morton came over to them, he said, and began swaying to the beat – “but we hadn’t started playing yet. The job was to keep up with her.”
Wherever she was, “she brought the party – she is the party everywhere she goes,” said Evanston resident and ABC Channel 7 news anchor Karen Jordan, who introduced the film. “How fortunate are we that her journey took her to Evanston.”
That journey, which began in Winston Salem, N.C., brought her to attend graduate school at Northwestern University in 1939. “I wanted to get to where I didn’t know anybody, because everyone who knew me was always telling me what to do,” Ms. Morton said. In both the town and the University, she found “the effects of Jim Crow,” which she did not anticipate, “because I did not think any school in the North would be segregated.”
She met James T. Morton at an event at the Emerson Street YMCA. The two married and settled in North Carolina, where Dr. Morton served as dean at Bennett College. He was drafted into the army as a private, but near the end of his military career he was given a direct commission as a psychologist, the only Black American to receive such an appointment during World War II, according to the American Psychological Association. In 1946, he accepted an appointment at Tuskegee Veterans Hospital in Ala., becoming the first Black chief psychologist for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
After the war, the couple returned to Evanston, Mr. Morton’s hometown, and lived in the house at the corner of Darrow Avenue and Simpson Street that Mr. Morton owned and had belonged to his parents.
Ms. Morton taught school here, became principal of Haven Middle School and was appointed and then elected alderman of the Fifth Ward. She was the first Black person to become Mayor of Evanston, a position she held for 16 years – from 1993 until 2009. In her retirement, she has remained committed to the community and its residents.
The documentary was Mr. Jordan’s idea, Mr. Robinson said at the premiere screening. He continued, “Steve said, ‘We have to capture Lorraine – now.’ He shot nine hours of video with her on four consecutive Fridays. … The problem was how to edit it down.”
“Everyone here has a story about you,” Mr. Robison said to Ms. Morton just before the screening began. He said he met her when he was 13 years old. “I remember her saying, ‘Do well in school; do well in life; do well in your community.”
After the screening, it was all Lorraine Morton. “I turned the mike over to you,” Mr. Robinson said.
Ms. Morton said to him, “You have spent your life celebrating history. It’s in your genes.” She added, “I’m very appreciative of what you’ve done. I only did what my mother and father told me. … As he was dying he said, ‘Only a life of service is a life worthwhile.’”
For more than a half hour, Ms. Morton spoke of the importance of family and introduced the family members in attendance. The Evanston Hairston-Morton family learned only recently of two of them, a niece and a nephew, who were children of one of Ms. Morton’s brothers; both attended the screening and celebration.
“When I reached 99, I thought the Lord must be keeping me here because there’s something He wants to do. And that’s it – with Tom and Denise, our family is complete,” Ms. Morton said.
The next two screenings will be held from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on July 30 at the Morton Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave., and from 3 to 4:30 p.m. on Aug. 25 at the Main Library, 1703 Orrington Ave. Both are free and open to the public.