- Kathryn L. Morgan (1919-2010)
Kathryn Morgan's groundbreaking book, Children of Strangers (1980), was the first work of African American family folklore by a folklorist. What a voice, and what stories. If she hadn't known about Caddy Gordon, her great-great-grandmother, whose legacy is recounted in the volume, she would have had to invent her, Morgan said. Read the book.1 From the first sentence, this is anti-racist work. Work that builds strength and power in the face of fear and all that is ugly. In her writing, and in her life, Morgan showed how to be courageous and righteous, true to enduring values, accountable to the beloved community who makes us who we hope to be.
Morgan took folklore seriously. She simply refused to countenance the idea that there was any second-class status to the training she had received from her own family and community, or to the inherited stories that proved sturdy antidotes to racism and other toxins. She refused to accept that African American folklore could be defined by white scholars with suspect intentions, focused only on "street" genres, or defined by lack or pathology. She rejected the notion that history could be defined without reference to the oral traditions that people shaped and shared themselves.
Kathryn Morgan grounded herself in a history of Black self-determination, valuing community practices that build power, dignity, and cultural health. Her Afrocentrism embraced "children of strangers": people who defined their status and humanity by actions, by choosing to identify with (and be accountable to) communities of choice. She acted out of love and expansively: in scholarship, poetry, and creative work, in holding forth. And she refused to be silent in the face of racism, injustice, or stupidity. In her writing (and her life and being), she insisted on the power of folklore in exposing lies. The family stories she studied and encouraged others to study exemplify a way to be in the world.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Morgan earned an MA from Howard University (1952) and an MA (1968) and PhD (1970) from the University of Pennsylvania. In the 1970s she held visiting teaching positions at Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College, the University of Delaware, and the University of California at Berkeley. Other professional affiliations included the National Council of Black Studies, the Association of African and African American Folklorists, the National Afrocentric Institute, and the Philadelphia Folklore Project, upon whose board she sat in the early 1990s. She taught and spoke widely on African American folklore, history, and culture.
The first African American woman to earn the PhD in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania, the first African American professor (and first folklorist in the History Department) in 1970 at Swarthmore College, the first African American on the Executive Board of the American Folklore Society in 1991, Morgan unerringly spoke truth to power. As the first in many places unaccustomed to the presence of a strong Black woman who knew who she was, Morgan faced and surmounted challenges with grace and humor.
"I learned at 10 years old to disturb the peace of racism, and I will continue doing so for as long as I live," she said in 2000, in an interview with a former Swarthmore student, Laura Markowitz. Markowitz shares Morgan's account of how, in 1976, she was denied tenure at Swarthmore. Her history colleagues didn't consider folklore a valid form of investigation. Black students immediately reacted, "protesting the fact that the college was getting rid of their one African American woman teacher who taught [End Page 209] courses on their lives, their history" (Markowitz 2000:22). White student and faculty allies supported the protest. Morgan agreed to join a class action discrimination suit underway against Swarthmore. The day before she was to testify, Morgan was awarded tenure; she testified anyway.
The world eventually caught up to her. Morgan retired in 1995, the Sarah Lawrence Light-foot Emerita Professor in History and Folklore, beloved by colleagues and students. In 1991, she was the first recipient of an award named in her honor by Swarthmore's Black Alumni Association, recognizing her contributions to the lives...